The effects on kids of school shootings
Once again, school shootings are in the headlines. And for students at Northern Illinois University and their peers across the country, those headlines have been all too familiar in their young lives.
The timeline of school shootings includes Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, Red Lake High School on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota in 2005, an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania in 2006, and Virginia Tech in 2007. And the Northern Illinois University shooting was the fourth at a U.S. school in a week, according to media reports.
Students who were in elementary, middle, or high school when Columbine happened are now teens or young adults.
“These young people have been exposed to more violence than perhaps any other previous generation just because of [its prevalence] in television, movies, and actual coverage of violent incidents,” Scott Poland, EdD, tells WebMD.
Poland is the crisis coordinator at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He’s been involved in crisis work at 11 school shootings, including Columbine.
“Columbine sent shock waves through every school in America,” says Poland. “My daughter, Jill, was an eighth-grader in Houston at that time. She didn’t want to get out of the car the next morning because she was afraid.”
Researchers haven’t yet studied the impact that the string of school shootings has had on the teens and young adults who have grown up with such crimes.
“I think if there’s a cumulative effect, it’s because we don’t talk about things the way we should,” says Poland.
“You can run a theory that says they’d be more fearful because they’ve had more of these incidents in their lives and so it seems that life is more unpredictable, and if you add 9/11 to that, it’s even been a stronger part of their lives,” Patrick Tolan, PhD, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tells WebMD.
“On the other hand,” says Tolan, “these kinds of things have been in their lives in a such a way that it may not be as shocking as much as it is for people who grow up not hearing about these things.”
School shootings are rare, and when they happen, they obviously deal the harshest blow to those on the scene and their loved ones. But they’re not the only ones who are affected.
“There’s something called vicarious traumatization,” says Russell T. Jones, PhD, a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech University. “The phenomenon seems to suggest that being repeatedly exposed to other traumatic events can have a negative impact on a particular individual.”
“There are at least some preliminary data that say that even though you weren’t there, by witnessing it on television or knowing someone that was involved, you can in fact become traumatized at varying levels,” says Jones, who has a secondary appointment at Yale University.
Jones has three pieces of advice for people dealing with vicarious traumatization after a school shooting:
- Don’t watch too much of the TV coverage. “As they’re playing it over and over and over again, [don't] expose yourself to it,” says Jones. Poland agrees. “When I was at school a very long time ago I would have to read a newspaper. … it wouldn’t be front and center on television,” he says. “Frankly, I generally avoid the coverage. … I’m not going to be turning it on because it’s very upsetting.”
- If you’re having trouble, get help. “Reach out to friends and family members, talk about your feelings and your thoughts. This kind of thing can be very helpful,” says Jones.
- Don’t let stigma stop you from getting help. Jones says he hopes stigma about mental health will decrease. “There’s a lot of science behind helping people following traumatic events, and it’s our hope they will reach out for that help and lead fruitful and productive lives,” says Jones.
Experts recommend that parents talk to children about violence and safety, but that conversation is “very different” when the child is a college-aged young adult, says Tolan.
“The older the child, the more you want to talk about what’s the meaning of this [event], what would they do, and how they want to think about this being a part of the society they live in,” says Tolan.