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Today’s kids are vulnerable to dangers previous generations couldn’t even imagine. One of those dangers is accidentally viewing graphic live stream videos. Livestream videos can be found on major social media platforms such as Facebook Live, Instagram, and Periscope. As discussed in the previous two articles of this three-part series, there have been very disturbing events witnessed through live streams such as murder, fatal car crashes, and even torture. To view such a horrid sight would disturb a grown adult. Children are even more susceptible to psychological distress. Recent research has examined how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can result from viewing these video images.

How Graphic Live Streams Affect Children

Accidentally clicking on violent live stream video would frighten any adult. Children are particularly vulnerable to trauma, including the development of serious mental illness post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health disorder in which a person struggles to recover from experiencing or witnessing a traumatizing event such as a school shooting, assault, war, a natural disaster, or a serious accident. People with PTSD often have severe anxiety and panic attacks when reminded of the traumatic event. They feel stressed and frightened even when there is no danger present.

Common features of PTSD include intense nightmares, difficulty sleeping, and flashbacks (intrusive images like you’re re-experiencing it) of the traumatic event. Children younger than six years old show signs of PTSD differently than adults. They often demonstrate impairing behaviors like wetting the bed, being unable to speak, acting out the traumatic event in playtime, and being extremely clingy with their caregiver. PTSD is a very serious, debilitating disorder that can leave the individual in a nearly constant state of fear and stress.

Being able to discuss the traumatic event that was witnessed is essential for treating PTSD. In a study with Danish high school students, subjects who had witnessed a school shooting were assessed for PTSD. It was found that the prevalence of PTSD seven months after the incident was 9.5%. Lack of expressive ability was found to be a predictor of those who developed PTSD (Elklit, 2013).

Scientific Studies on Videos and the Onset of PTSD

Because graphic videos are relatively new, there is little research on how it affects the public. However, the studies that have been conducted found that there is a correlation between stress disorders and graphic video content.

One of the earliest studies was conducted after the tragic day of 9/11. Though graphic live streams were not available in 2001, the findings of this study about viewing television are generalizable to live streaming. This study assessed the immediate mental health effects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Americans at home were watching an average of eight hours of news coverage a day as the attacks unfolded. The researchers used random digit-dialing to interview a sample of 560 adults, three to five days after 9/11. Approximately 90% of the subjects interviewed reported one or more stress symptoms to at least some degree. Forty-four percent of the adults had one or more substantial symptoms of stress. The researchers also asked questions about the mental state of the participants’ children.  It was found that 35% of children had one or more stress symptoms, and 47% were worried about their own safety or the safety of loved ones. Ten percent of the children had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

In another study, researchers surveyed a national sample of 4,675 adults who viewed the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings on video. It was found that people who had repeatedly watched the tragic footage sustained more trauma and stress than people who had actually witnessed the events in real life.  Those who watched six or more hours per day of media coverage were nine times more likely to report high acute stress than those who viewed less than one hour a day. Symptoms of acute stress included intrusive or troubling thoughts, feeling hyperaware, avoiding anything that reminds one of the traumatic events, and feelings of detachment.

This final study discusses the direct relationship of graphic Internet videos to PTSD. Participants in the study viewed footage from graphic videos posted to various Internet platforms, including the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks, school shootings, and suicide. There were 189 participants who completed clinical assessments for PTSD, a personality questionnaire, a trauma assessment, and a questionnaire regarding violent news events on the Internet or social media. It was found that 22% of the participants showed symptoms of PTSD after watching the videos. Subjects who reported viewing the graphic footage more often suffered the most negative effects.  The principal investigator of the study, Dr. Ramsden, concluded, “It is quite worrying that nearly a quarter of those who viewed the images scored high on clinical measures of PTSD. With increased access to social media and the Internet via tablets and smartphones, we need to ensure that people are aware of the risks of viewing these images and that appropriate support is available for those who need it.”

If your children witnessed a traumatic live stream or Internet video, how would you know if they had PTSD? 

Elementary School-Aged Children

“PTSD in children and adolescents requires the presence of re-experiencing and avoidance, numbing, and arousal symptoms. However, PTSD may not present itself in children the same way it does in adults” (National Center for PTSD). For example, young children may not experience visual flashbacks like adults with PTSD. They are more likely to experience “time skew” and “omen formation,” which are symptoms usually not seen in adults. Time skew is the mis-sequencing of trauma-related events when remembering the experience. Omen formation is a belief that there were warning signs that foreshadowed the traumatic event. Children often believe that if they remain alert, they will recognize the warning signs and avoid another trauma. This particular symptom may result in chronic hypervigilance, anxiety, and sleep disorders.

School-aged children with PTSD often engage in posttraumatic play or reenactment of the trauma in play, drawings, or verbalizations. Post-traumatic play is a literal representation of the traumatic event in which the child repetitively acts out some aspect of the trauma. This often does not relieve anxiety. An example of post-traumatic play would be a child reenacting a murder they witnessed with dolls or shaking a playhouse after they’ve experienced an earthquake. Post-traumatic reenactment, on the other hand, is more flexible and involves behaviorally mimicking some aspects of the trauma. An example would be carrying a toy gun after being exposed to violence.

Adolescents and Teens

PTSD in adolescents more closely resembles symptoms seen in adults. However, there are some features that are unique to teenagers. As discussed above, children may engage in traumatic play after the onset of trauma. Adolescents are more likely to engage in the traumatic reenactment, in which they merge some aspects of the trauma into their lives. Reenactments occur due to psychological vulnerabilities and defensive mechanisms which are characteristic of PTSD survivors.  Adolescents tend to engage in impulsive and aggressive behaviors more than younger children and adults do.

What can parents do?

  • Advocate for better safety protocols including monitoring and filtering with platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Periscope, and Youtube.
  • Filter video access to children by using a child-safe browser, refusing requests to adopt lives tream social media apps, and using appropriate child sites like YouTube Kids.
  • Maintain an ongoing dialogue about content viewed online to optimize the chance your child will go to you if they happen upon inappropriate content.
  • Let your child know they won’t be in trouble for accidental views.
  • Be alert for changes in behavior that may be reflective of PTSD like fears, anxiety, bathroom accidents, mutism, sleep problems, appetite problems, substance abuse, or school failure.
  • Seek the help of a child psychologist if you have concerns.

Thank you to CSUCI Intern, Mara Pober for writing this important series to inform parents and help them keep their kids Internet safe. For more parenting advice on-screen media and trauma in children, pick up your copy of Dr. Bennett’s book, Screen Time in the Mean Time: A Parent Guide to Get Kids and Teens Internet Safe.

I’m the mom psychologist who helps you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
GetKidsInternetSafe

Works Cited

A National Survey of Stress Reactions after the September 11, 2001, Terrorist Attacks (2001)

National Center for PTSD

Prolonged viewing of Boston Marathon bombings media coverage tied to acute stress (2013)

The psychological reactions after witnessing a killing in public in a Danish high school

Viewing violent news on social media can cause trauma (2015)

Photo Credits

Don´t let it happen again

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Little Boy Bluescreen

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Dr. Tracy Bennett
Dr. Tracy Bennett
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