Watching Terror and Other Traumas Can Deeply Hurt Teenagers

The focus: web exposure to the Boston Marathon bombing



See the column on the Wall Street Journal site


Several weeks into the Gulf War in 1990, when I was working as a clinical psychologist in Montreal, pediatricians started referring children with mysterious behavior problems. A few 8- to 10-year-olds had started to wet their beds for the first time since they were toddlers. Others were refusing to go to school. Their first interviews revealed a common thread: Though strangers to each other, the children and their families were all visitors or immigrants from Israel, and they had been watching Scud missile attacks against Israel on the news every day.

These children were living more than 5,000 miles from the bombing, but observing the devastation from afar—and their parents’ reactions to it—had elicited an emotional response that skewed their habits. New research is now helping us to understand how second-hand exposure to disasters can change our brains and behavior, and who is most at risk.

“We used to think of it as a bull’s-eye. The closer you were to the trauma, the more likely you were to show symptoms,” said Jonathan Comer, a professor of psychology at Florida International University who investigates the impact of terrorist attacks on children and families. “But a summary of post-9/11 reactions really challenged that idea.” Those closest to the event didn’t necessarily show the most trauma, said Prof. Comer.

Prof. Comer’s own research upends our assumptions about who is most prone to feel psychological fallout after a terrorist attack. In a 2016 study of the Boston Marathon bombing published last summer in Evidence-Based Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, the research team surveyed nearly 500 parents of 4-to-19-year-olds about their children’s internet exposure during the bombing and the manhunt that followed. The surveyed families all lived within 25 miles of either the bombing site itself or Watertown, Mass., where the police had ordered the local population to shelter in place during a search for suspects.

The findings? As one would expect, exposure to graphic online content rose with age. Over 23% of children saw internet images of the bombing, and 68% viewed footage of police with military-grade weapons searching their neighborhoods. The average was two to three hours of daily online activity per child. While those under age 8 were less exposed, three-quarters of children over 12 spent up to 6 hours daily viewing online news and social media coverage of the crisis.

Teenagers were the most prone of all age groups to experience psychological trauma after the bombing. The researchers found that the more internet news and social media contact they had about the bombing and manhunt, the more severe were their PTSD symptoms, which ranged from intrusive flashbacks to emotional numbing. What’s more, even if 87% of parents believed that online exposure to the crisis could be damaging, very few restricted their children’s access to it. And what parents thought was private—their own fear—turned out to be contagious, too, as shown in a 2014 study of parents’ reactions to the marathon bombing by Prof. Comer’s team.

To understand how observational distress works, a team led by Alexei Morozov at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute looked at what happens when mice watch a sibling experience fear. He first learned that vicarious fear leaves a neural trace that predisposes animals to experience trauma later on. A Morozov-team study published last month in Neuropsychopharmacology found that vicarious trauma changes the connections between the amygdala (roughly, our emotion and survival center) and the prefrontal cortex (the planning and decision-making area). “After the animal has the experience of the other’s pain, it allows excitation to be more robust…it reduces the ability of the prefrontal cortex to act rationally,” he told me.

That’s one reason why “watching around-the-clock breaking news is not in our best interest—either for adults or children,” said Jonathan Comer. Because it’s not how much danger we’re in that matters. It’s how much threat we perceive in others.