For kids, news coverage can bring distant tragedy home

Father and daughter watching TV

When the news is packed with coverage of a tragedy or disaster, experts recommend watching the news with your child and discussing it.


Laura Sanders is away on maternity leave. This week’s Growth Curve post is from contributing correspondent Laura Beil, who wrote the feature “Emotional Wounds,” which will appear in the December 13 issue.

Rarely do I open the local newspaper to a headline as large or as startling as “Ebola Hits Home.” In October, it was hard to tell that anything else was happening in Dallas. One TV station even featured an entire report on the fact that sheriff’s deputies were going to clean their squad cars (complete with circling newscopter shots of the parked vehicles). When the first infected nurse was driven from the hospital to the airport for her transfer to the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, news stations broke in with live video feed of the ambulance cruising down the expressway. O.J. in the Bronco all over again.

My 13-year-old daughter was keenly interested in all this. My son, who is 11, was on a news blackout. He’s unusually sensitive to his surroundings, especially any living thing in distress. The kid won’t even squash a bug that makes its way into the house. (“Let’s catch him and put him outside so he can find his family!”) When bad things happen — school shootings, deadly tornadoes, hurricanes — all he knows of those events is what I tell him. (Thankfully, most of the boys at his school are more tuned in to monster-based video games and Legos than to current events.) I can’t protect him from the world’s ugliness forever, but for now, I can feed it to him in bites that won’t worry him.

The science says I’m not just being an overprotective mom. After the Oklahoma City bomb in 1995, children experienced the destruction through television screens. This was before the Internet streamed through phones and iPods, and even so, indirect exposure through media profoundly affected many kids. When a research team from the University of Oklahoma questioned middle school children who did not know anyone killed or injured two and three years afterward, about one-fourth remembered feeling “a lot” less safe. Ten percent of children were still feeling uneasy three years later.

“You can’t be diagnosed with full blown PTSD just by witnessing something through the media,” says Brian Houston, a communications professor at the University of Missouri and codirector of the Terrorism and Disaster Center. “But can youth still have problems that matter? Yes.”

When news coverage shows continuous loops of buildings collapsing, or cars blown around like toys, “you can re-experience it over and over again. For youth, that may create a lot of opportunity for confusion,” he says. Children may think each repeated video clip of destruction is a brand new event.

As with my children, some are more stressed than others by media coverage, Houston says, particularly those who have already experienced trauma or have underlying mental health issues. In a meta-analysis Houston published in 2009 in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, he found other trends — among them, that children farthest from the event are more affected by media coverage of the disaster, perhaps because they don’t have any other reference point.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers nice guidance on how much coverage of tragedy your kids should see. They recommend watching the news with your child and discussing it, and asking about things your kids have heard at school. This is the approach I took with my daughter. The group also recommends emphasizing to kids that people are being helped, and that they themselves are safe.

In reality, the effects of blanket news exposure isn’t just a problem for children, says Houston, citing a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year finding that people outside Boston exposed to more than six hours a day of marathon bombing coverage experienced more stress than people within the city itself. After a disaster, “a good recommendation for parents is to limit the media exposure for their children,” he says. “That’s probably a good recommendation for all of us.”

About Laura Beil

Laura Beil is a contributing correspondent. Based outside Dallas, Beil specializes in reporting on medicine, health policy and science.

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