Perspective | Disaster news can trigger post-traumatic stress in kids thousands of miles away

With climate change, researchers estimate that today’s children will face three times more weather-related disasters like their grandparents. And the pervasiveness of social media and 24-hour news make exposure to disaster images more likely.

As a neuroscientist and a psychologist who study youth anxiety and the adolescent brain, we have been exploring ways to identify children who are most at risk.

Exposure to disasters in particular can trigger Post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as loss of sleep, intrusive thoughts about the experience, memory problems, or severe emotional distress. But while about 10 percent of people who are directly exposed to traumatic events develop symptoms that are severe enough to meet diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, the majority do not.

understand which The factors help determine if exposure to the disaster will lead to serious mental health problems. It can help identify children at increased risk for PTSD, facilitate rapid intervention and help develop targeted mental health outreach after disasters.

This also applies to children exposed to disasters and other traumatic events through the media.

TO once dominant theory of mental health in disasters, sometimes called the “bull’s-eye model”, proposed that the negative mental health effects of a disaster were directly related to how close the person was to the center of the event: the bull’s-eye. But plus and more studies are finding that the negative mental health effects of disasters extend far beyond the immediate disaster area.

Tabloid 24-hour news cycles on television and online are part of the reason, studies suggest. These media are designed to attract viewers and keep them interested. This is especially true for social media content, which often contains more graphic images and scenes than those typically broadcast by more traditional news sources.

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So why are some children vulnerable to these media influences while others are not?

The impact of Hurricane Irma

When Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, we were able to use a national long-term research project that was already underway to study how children coped both before and after the disaster. We could look at types of disaster exposure and whether any pre-existing characteristics could distinguish children who developed PTSD symptoms from those who did not.

We were able to establish more firmly whether the changes were due to the disaster and media exposure, and not something else.

the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study It followed 11,800 children in the United States over a 10-year period using a variety of brain imaging and mental health assessments. Three of the study sites, two in Florida and one in South Carolina, were affected by hurricane irmaone of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record.

In the week before Irma made landfall, national media coverage provided very dramatic round-the-clock forecasts about the impending “catastrophic“storm and its threat of destruction”epic proportions.” Irma led to the largest human evacuation in US history. 7 million people.

After the storm, we collected additional data from about 400 of the project participants at the three sites affected by Irma and one demographically similar site across the country in San Diego. We assessed their exposure to the hurricane and media coverage prior to the storm, and the extent to which the child exhibited post-traumatic stress symptoms six to eight months after the storm, when the children were 11 to 13 years old.

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we found that increased media exposure was associated with a higher number of reports of post-traumatic stress symptoms, and the link was as strong in San Diego youth as it was in Florida youth.

The association between media exposure and post-traumatic stress symptoms was strongest for those with a particular brain response in the amygdalaan area of ​​the brain involved in processing fear and detecting potential threats.

Earlier in the study, many of the same children had been particularly reactive to seeing fearful facial expressions. At the same time, their brain scans showed reduced activity in another brain region, the orbitofrontal cortexit is believed to be involved in reducing emotional arousal.

That brain activation profile marked vulnerability to developing post-traumatic stress symptoms after viewing media coverage related to the disaster.

These findings highlight how children do not need to be in danger or even close to a disaster to be affected by it; exposure to media coverage of a disaster can also have a substantial impact.

They also suggest that there are identifiable vulnerabilities that could make some children more likely to be emotionally affected by the media.

Scientists are increasingly interested in understanding what exposure to traumatic news coverage is doing to younger viewers who are still developing a sense of security. Recent research has suggested that parents should also be concerned about children’s exposure to social media apps like Instagram and tik tok.

So what can parents do? For starters, parents can control and limit access to some Internet content for young viewers.

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While it is important for parents to receive regular updates on impending storms or fires, prolonged exposure to such content rarely provides additional actionable information. Intermittent breaking news logs may be appropriate, but the TV and social media don’t have to be on constantly.

It’s easy to routinely tune out and it’s good for kids’ mental health.

Jonathan S. Comer is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Florida International University. anthony steven dick is a professor of psychology at Florida International University.

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