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An FIU study finds media coverage of disasters can harm kids' mental health


Media coverage of natural disasters like hurricanes can be vital to public safety, but it can also have negative impacts on kids' mental health, according to researchers at Florida International University.

They analyzed hundreds of kids who were already participating in a national long-term study known as the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, or ABCD, before Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on parts of the country in 2017. Researchers then followed up with families months after the storm with questionnaires about how it affected them in terms of damage to property, disruptions to life and emotional trauma.

The study included kids from states directly affected like Florida and South Carolina as well as some from California, thousands of miles from impact.

FIU psychology professor Anthony Dick said they found media coverage of Irma negatively affected kids' mental health, regardless of their proximity to the storm.

“These events, especially as a result of climate change, are only going to increase, so we're going to see more storms, and if media coverage around those storms is very intense, this may be a negative risk factor for children developing PTS [post-traumatic stress] in the future,” he said.

But not everyone reacted equally, according to Dick, who holds a doctorate degree in developmental psychology.

He said researchers harnessed brain images and other medical history they had from participants prior to Irma to look for patterns in their responses to the post-storm survey. They found differences in the way kids’ brains worked could make some more likely to experience post-traumatic stress from media exposure than others.

Dick explained children whose amygdala, a region of the brain that processes intense emotions like fear, had higher reactivity to negative stimuli were more likely to report PTS symptoms after the hurricane. Additionally, kids who did not recruit a part of the brain involved in regulating emotions and controlling impulses known as the orbitofrontal cortex as much were also at higher risk.

“So it’s a combination of heightened reactivity in the region of the brain that is associated with processing fear and lower reactivity in the region of the brain that’s involved in regulating that fear, and kids who showed that pattern were more likely to show post-traumatic stress symptoms,” said Dick.

He noted that none of the children in the study had severe enough symptoms to be clinically diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but that many experienced elevated stress symptoms nonetheless.

Dick said the often round-the-clock nature of storm reporting and increased access to information from smartphones and social media can fuel stress.

“I think mental health professionals need to be more aware of how media might influence, especially children who have less control over their own environment,” said Dick.

He recommends parents limit kids' screen time ahead of impending weather events.

The report was published in Nature Human Behaviour. The University of Florida, the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of California, San Diego partnered on the study.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.
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