Anxious children more affected by the media

Children with pre-existing anxiety disorders are more likely to be affected by the media, according to new research. The study by Carl Weems and his colleagues at the University of New Orleans followed 141 schoolchildren who had been exposed to the damage and flooding of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the research evaluated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in the youngsters 24 and 30 months after the weather event.

The researchers evaluated the children's PTSD symptoms and the amount of disaster coverage they saw on TV one month after Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

Based on their findings, Prof Weems believes pre-existing symptoms could be an important device for identifying which children are likely to be affected by this kind of broadcasting.

"Practitioners with young patients who have anxiety disorders such as PTSD may wish to emphasise to parents the potential effects of media," he stated.

Professor Andy Field, a Chartered Psychologist, says:

"There is an increasing awareness of the impact of negative televised events on children’s emotional responses. Work based around natural disasters (e.g. hurricane Katrina) and terrorists attacks (such as the Oklahoma bombings of 1995 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001) has shown that up to 25 per cent of children can develop post traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms despite no proximal contact with the events. Comer and Kendall coined the term ‘second-hand terrorism’ when referring to the impact on children of televised depictions of terrorist attacks.

"Weems et al. looked at PTS symptoms in children following hurricane Gustav. This study is unusual in that they had pre-disaster measures of PTS symptoms in their sample from one year and six months before hurricane Gustav hit. Their findings show that PTS symptoms one year before Gustav interacted with TV exposure to significantly predict PTS symptoms one month after Gustav.

"This suggests that children already experiencing anxiety and more susceptible to the impact of TV coverage of a negative world event. It is particularly interesting because the findings somewhat contradict those of Otto et al., who showed that prior child anxiety did not predict children’s PTS reactions following exposure to TV depictions of the 9/11 attacks. However, Watts and his colleagues looked at the moderating effect of TV exposure on the relationship between prior PTS symptoms and post-disaster symptoms suggesting a more complex relationship than that explored in the Otto study."

Chartered Psychologist Dr Susan Marchant-Haycox adds:

"There has always been a great debate on whether or not the media has negative affects on children - particularly in terms of anxiety disorders and aggression. That issue is not been resolved.

"It's rather odd that children with anxiety disorders are attracted to watching a lot of disaster-type films which are liable to raise their anxiety-levels. However, research has often indicated that those who consistently watch anxiety-provoking programmes often become desensitised to such material.   Furthermore, there are many theories concerning PTSD  - some of which are biological. Therefore to suggest that the media alone could have a major impact on such a disorder is misleading. Studies concerning the media are mainly correlational and as such do not give cause and effect."