Terrorist attacks put children at risk for PTSD

Photo by Flickr user emerille

Photo by Flickr user emerille

Children exposed to large amounts of media coverage following a terrorist attack can develop serious mental health difficulties, regardless of their physical proximity to the event, according to FIU psychologist Jonathan S. Comer.

Most recently, Comer studied children who attended the Boston Marathon in 2013 and found they likely developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at a rate comparable to that of children who experienced the September 11 terrorist attacks. The findings were published online this week by the journal Pediatrics.

Comer has conducted extensive research on the psychological impact of terrorism and other traumatic events or disasters on youth, including the Boston bombing and the September 11 attacks.

“Kids directly exposed to the bombing carried an enormous mental health burden,” Comer said. “There were also considerable mental health problems in children highly exposed to the manhunt that followed the attack – and in fact some of the negative mental health consequences were more strongly linked with children’s exposure to the manhunt than to the initial attack.”

The 460 children sampled in Boston watched an average of 1.5 hours of television coverage on the attack day. Twenty-one percent watched more than three hours, which in turn was associated with increased problems and PTSD symptoms. Only about a third of parents tried to restrict children’s exposure to coverage of the attack and manhunt.

Prior research shows children located far away from terrorist attacks are also exposed to large doses of attack-related media coverage and can experience PTSD symptoms. According to a U.S. national survey, children watched an average of three hours of TV news coverage on September 11, 2001 – with 23 percent watching five hours or more. Comer points out that these findings can also apply to natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes.

Comer’s advice to parents is to turn the TV off.

“Children are best to hear breaking news from loved ones rather than from strangers or the news,” Comer said. “The news can at times be overly dramatic and parents can help educate children about the dramatic nature attached to news and they can help children focus on positive and hopeful aspects of the situation. Parents can help children focus on all of the helpers that emerge after disasters occur.”

Comer’s research demonstrates the events, community responses and media coverage that follow an attack like the Boston Marathon bombing – not just the initial attack itself – can have considerable impacts on children’s psychological well-being and highlights the importance of seeking mental health care.