It’s hard not to be upset by the rolling media coverage of an unfolding tragedy like this week’s mass shooting in Orlando, with its graphic footage and heartbreaking interviews of those directly affected.
And for children, such news can be difficult to understand.
Escaping these big stories can be difficult when they’re everywhere you go — on the television at home, on your car radio, all over your favourite websites and on the front page of the newspaper.
Research shows even adults can be very traumatised by this constant stream of bad news, especially in the wake of disasters or senseless acts of violence.
A study conducted in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings found people exposed to more than six hours of daily media coverage of the tragedy were more likely to experience symptoms of acute stress than those directly affected by the event. One of the study’s co-authors, Professor Roxane Cohen Silver, said the results of the study were quite surprising.
“What was striking was the impact of this media exposure even for people who knew nobody, who weren’t there that day … Media exposure was a stronger predictor of acute stress response than having been there,” she said.
Children may worry the same thing will happen to them
A senior psychologist for disasters with the Australian Psychological Society, Susie Burke, agreed intense media coverage of disasters — such as terrorist attacks, plane crashes, floods, and earthquakes — can trigger a strong emotional response in many people.
But she said young children could be particularly sensitive to such coverage — especially those around pre-school age, who may worry that the same sort of thing is going to happen to them and their family.
“It’s not the toddlers or really young children, who are probably not going to know what they are looking at. It’s the slightly older children, who are aware enough to know what they are seeing … but who aren’t necessarily able to see that it’s a one-off, discrete happening,” Dr Burke said.
Professor Beverley Raphael from the Australian Trauma and Grief Network, based at the Australian National University, said evidence showed excessive exposure to disaster-related news coverage could traumatise some children, and this is why the World Health Organisation recommended children not be shown this type of coverage.
She said there was also evidence to suggest that video footage in particular could be “much more unsettling and can stick in a child’s mind more than the static images in print media or the audio in radio stories”.
But there are ways to help children cope with and process disaster-related news coverage.
1. Do limit viewing time, but don’t try to keep it a secret
While it’s important to protect children from excessive media coverage, Professor Raphael said parents shouldn’t try to shield their children from these types of events when they happen.