The recent theatre shootings in Aurora Colorado left the community in a state of terror and shock and its effects will last a very long time. Through detailed and ongoing news coverage, the tragedy has reached into homes and families all over the world, and leads to the question of how much horror should our kids witness. Georgetown University’s Psychology Department has conducted research that suggests news broadcasts of violent events may be traumatic to children.
This ScienceDaily article states that study results published in the journal Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, revealed that children exposed to terrorist attacks show more symptoms of mental health problems, including posttraumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and general anxiety disorder. As media focuses on raising awareness of terrorism, more children are exposed to “second hand terrorism” and may experience similar anxiety.
Stress or worry brings about the “fight or flight” response which triggers the nervous system to release hormones such as cortisol. These hormones raise blood sugar and blood fat levels and place heavy strain on all systems of the body. In the short term, this increases strength to face the threat but chronic stress or worry can have adverse effects on the mind and body.
A study called Tales from the Screen: Enduring Fright Reactions to Scary Media revealed that 90 percent of participants (more than 150 college students at Michigan and Wisconsin) reported being frightened by media during childhood or adolescence. Moreover, about one out of four still experienced a “residual anxiety”.
Other research has been done that indicates violent thoughts and behavior increase after exposure to violent films, music, television or video games. Observation is one way that children learn and some children may not have the maturity to distinguish between pretend and actual events. Children who are exposed to high levels of violence are in danger of becoming desensitized to it, accepting it as normal, thus finding it difficult to empathize with others.
According to a WebMD article, researchers of the Indiana University School of Medicine studied two groups of boys and girls. They measured more brain activity in the frontal cortex of children who weren’t exposed to high levels of media violence or violent video games. The group of children who were exposed to high levels of media violence or violent video games showed less activity in the frontal cortex of the brain, which has been linked to problems with self-control and attention.
Perhaps the innocent days of “Leave it to Beaver” have disappeared in this age of electronics and instant global communication but many parents are struggling to distinguish between protecting children and sheltering them. However, with so much research showing the harmful effects of horror and violence, parents have a responsibility to see that their kids aren’t focusing disproportionately on the darker things in life.
Victims of the Aurora theatre shooting have been urged to seek professional counseling. When children are victims of, or witness to, horrible events, professional counseling can provide help in coping with the trauma. In Houston, there are hundreds of qualified trauma therapists who offer help in recovery from anxiety and trauma.