When children learn about news like the deadly school shooting that claimed more than a dozen lives on 14 February 2018 in Broward County, Florida, a logical question for them to ask is: Will the same thing happen to me?
As researchers and clinicians who have studied the problem of violence over the past three decades, we have witnessed a steady increase in levels of children’s exposure to violence and its damaging effect on their mental health.
How does this exposure affect the mental health of children and adolescents? And how should we handle the increased fear and insecurity that results from such events?
Exposure to violence
Today, children use many different forms of media at unprecedented levels – 92 percent of teens go online daily and 24 percent are online constantly.
As a result, even when violence happens in another part of the country, children can be exposed to the event and its consequences immediately, intensely and repeatedly.
In addition to what they see in the news or on social media, children could witness or be victims of violence in many other ways.
For example, when we surveyed high school students, between 13 and 45 percent reported they had been beaten up at school. Between 23 and 82 percent said they had witnessed someone else being beaten up at school in the past year.
Shootings in and around schools have been a regular occurrence in recent years.
Here is what happens to children
Children who report high levels of exposure to violence either as witness or victim report the highest levels of depression, anger and anxiety.
Our study with children in grades three to eight who witnessed someone being hit, slapped or punched found that 12 percent of these children reported levels of anxiety that could require treatment.
Similarly, six months after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, a survey of more than 8,000 New York City students in grades four through 12 showed that nearly 30 percent of children reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Exposure to violence could have other long-term impacts as well. Studies have shown how children can get desensitized to violence: That is, children can come to believe that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems and that it is without consequence. They could also come to believe that violence could happen anywhere and to anyone at any time.
Further, such children are also at a risk of perpetrating violence against others.
– Daniel J Flannery
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