Children’s Reactions to Trauma-related News Media

Following the Newtown school shooting, a fact sheet on the effects of trauma-related news media on children.

  • Research studies have indicated that, for children, exposure to greater amounts of trauma-related news coverage is associated with higher levels of symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.
    • E.g. Aber, Gershoff, Ware, & Kotler, 2004;
    • Fairbrother, Stuber, Galea, Fleischman, & Pfefferbaum, 2003
  • Greater trauma-related news media exposure is also related to greater amounts of behavioral problems and anxiety.
    • Wang et al., 2006
    • Hoven et al., 2005
  • It should be noted that no studies have conclusively determined that news exposure causes posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and behavioral problems in children—it is also possible that children who are more distressed seek out greater amounts of news exposure.
  • Studies suggest that, particularly in the immediate aftermath of exposure to news about traumatic events, children and their parents report that the news provokes emotional responses such as fear, worry, sadness, and distress.
    • E.g. Beauchesne, Kelley, Patsdaughter, & Pickard, 2002;
    • Pfefferbaum, et al., 2003
  • Certain factors may be associated with greater symptoms or emotional reactions. Though results are not conclusive, the following factors may be related to stronger emotional reactions:
    • Younger age (e.g. Otto et al., 2007)
    • Female gender (Pfefferbaum et al., 2003)
    • Viewing traumatic events unfolding live through the media, especially when images are particularly graphic in nature or depict death or serious injury of others (Fairbrother et al., 2003)
    • Living closer in proximity to the traumatic event being covered (particularly with older children who may be better able to differentiate events that are near or far away) (Smith & Wilson, 2000)
  • Certain elements of news coverage may be particularly distressing for different age groups.  
    • Younger children may experience more distress from visual elements of trauma-related news coverage
    • Older children may experience more distress related to the meaning and implications of the news story (e.g. considerations about their own safety) (Cantor et al., 1993)

Implications for Parents

  • Parents should be aware of the possibility of negative emotional reactions in their children following exposure to trauma-related news on television, on the Internet, or in print formats.
  • Current research results indicate that solely restricting children’s exposure to such coverage may do little to minimize negative emotional reactions (Buijzen et al., 2007).
  • Parents may find that discussing the news with their children may be most helpful, particularly if their children are younger in age (Buijzen et al., 2007).

Selected References

Aber, J. L., Gershoff, E. T., Ware, A., & Kotler, J. A. (2004). Estimating the effects of Septerber 11th and other forms of violence on the mental health and social development of New York City's youth: A matter of context. Applied Developmental Science, 8(3), 111-129.

Beauchesne, M. A., Kelley, B. R., Patsdaughter, C. A., & Pickard, J. (2002). Attack on America: Children's reactions and parents' responses. Journal of pediatric health care : official publication of National Association of Pediatric Nurse Associates & Practitioners, 16(5), 213-221.

Buijzen, M., Walma van der Molen, J. H., & Sondij, P. (2007). Parental Mediation of Children's Emotional Responses to a Violent News Event. Communication Research, 34(2), 212-230.

Cantor, J., Mares, M., & Oliver, M. (1993). Parents' and children's emotional reactions to TV coverage of the Gulf War. In B. S. Greenberg & W. Gantz (Eds.), Desert Storm and the Mass media (pp. 325-340). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Fairbrother, G., Stuber, J., Galea, S., Fleischman, A. R., & Pfefferbaum, B. (2003). Posttraumatic Stress Reactions in New York City Children After the September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks. Ambulatory Pediatrics, 3(6), 304-311.

Hoven, C. W., Duarte, C. S., Lucas, C. P., Wu, P., Mandell, D. J., Goodwin, R. D., et al. (2005). Psychopathology Among New York City Public School Children 6 Months After September 11. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(5), 545-551.

Otto, M. W., Henin, A., Hirschfeld-Becker, D. R., Pollack, M. H., Biederman, J., & Rosenbaum, J. F. (2007). Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms following media exposure to tragic events: Impact of 9/11 on children at risk for anxiety disorders. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21, 888-902.

Pfefferbaum, B., Seale, T. W., Brandt, E. N., Pfefferbaum, R. L., Doughty, D. E., & Rainwater, S. M. (2003). Media exposure in children one hundred miles from a terrorist bombing. Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, 15(1), 1-8.

Smith, S. L., & Wilson, B. (2000). Children's reactions to a television news story: The impact of video footage and proximity of the crime. Communication Research, 27(5), 641-673.

Wang, Y., Nomura, Y., Pat-Horenczyk, R., Doppelt, S., Abramovitz, R., Brom, D., et al. (2006). Association of direct exposure to terrorism, media exposure to terrorism, and other trauma with emotional and behavioral problems in preschool children. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1094, 363-368.