When Newtown children returned to area elementary schools less than a week after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, the cameras were watching, a reality that may slow healing in the Connecticut community.
Although there’s no literature that’s specific to the effects of a media frenzy after a school shooting on children’s psychological recovery, there’s plenty of other applicable evidence, according to Rahil Briggs, PsyD, of The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y.
“There are certain things we know for sure and can extrapolate easily,” Briggs told MedPage Today. “So the short answer is yes, this media presence has an effect on the ability to get back to normal.”
Mainly, a steady flow of paparazzi is a stumbling block to getting back into a routine — which is the key to speeding psychological recovery for all members of the community right now.
‘Routine’ as an agent of healing
“Routine is incredibly important to a young child. It provides a sense of safety,” Briggs said. “When you’re recovering from a trauma like they are starting to do, routine is even more important.”
Alan Kazdin, PhD, director of the Yale Parenting Center, said the cameras make the experience salient. Media attention for a positive event would have a great impact on a community, Kazdin said, but reinforcing a negative event through constant interviews and questioning is a road block to recovery.
“That’s the last thing you want to do right now,” Kazdin told MedPage Today. “It just fuels the fire and makes it a departure from routine, which is not good for trauma and anxiety at all.”
Constantly seeing their hometown on television also enhances the negative experience for children and may even contribute to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We know from a number of studies of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Challenger disaster, and Sept. 11 that watching the event on television can cause PTSD,” said Eugene Beresin, MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
While the kids who experience the traumatic event up close are more likely to develop the condition, Beresin noted, this type of “secondary terrorism” from constant replay can also contribute to pathology.
Those studies of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks showed that even children who were far away and “didn’t have anything to do with the World Trade Center, who had no relatives in New York, saw it on TV and had symptoms of PTSD,” Kazdin said, so the effects could be even more damaging for those who have a close connection to the trauma.
Indeed, the replay is what troubles Joshua Klapow, PhD, an expert in psychology and health policy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Klapow disagrees that the persistent media presence is a hindrance to getting back to a normal routine because nothing about Newtown children’s lives is going to feel routine or normal for a while.
But the constant daily visual reminders of the event will make children more vulnerable to psychological issues, he said.
On the other hand, some question whether there is value in talking with media about the losses they sustain during a tragedy, since it enables the family to honor their loved ones and to give voice to their feelings.
Some Newtown families, children at their sides, willingly spoke to media during candlelight vigils and other memorials, even just days after the attack.
“They wanted to feel some meaning in the loss,” Beresin said. “It may have been valuable for them to talk about it, to feel that they’re helping others. They feel that something can be done about the loss, that it’s not just a loss in vain.”
Klapow cautioned, however, that the impetus for putting a child on TV needs to be considered. Only if that child willingly volunteers to talk should such an interview be seen as helpful. A parent pushing a child to speak would only be detrimental, he said.
Nevertheless, many feel that the coverage has gone on too long and that it’s time for media to pull out and give Newtown time to heal in private.
“No one expects it to get back to normal any time soon,” Briggs said. “But any effort to make it feel like it’s approaching normal is a good thing.”
Cora Breuner, MD, MPH, of Seattle Children’s Hospital, agreed that the best course of action would be for the town to finally be able to mourn privately in hopes of moving on.
“We shouldn’t be interested in seeing these kids go back to school, just out of respect for the kids and families, especially the ones who lost children,” Breuner said. “It’s so much harder to deal with loss when there’s a camera in your face.”
Kristina Fiore is a staff writer at MedPage Today, where this article was originally published.