Spring 2007

Digital Kids and Stress

Recent findings suggest kids use internet for mood management

In the April issue of Cyberbehavior and Psychology, researcher Dr. Lewis Leung from the University of Hong Kong presents research to indicate that children and teenagers use the internet to help manage stressful life events. In prior years, research focused on how some youths coped by turning to cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, for example, to cope with various family, school or peer related stresses. In more recent years, there has been a major change in the availability of technology that connects youth to immediate sources of information and to social support. My son, for example, who is a junior in college, keeps his computer on 24 hours a day and has dozens of peer contacts. Such forms of communication, whether it is online or by text messaging allow for quick contact with others.

Findings from Dr. Leung's research indicate that there is a positive relationship between lower stress levels and access to online social support. More and more youth can be expected to use online support in a way that offers them a buffer to their day to day stress.

There are, of course, concerns that digital access means less physical activity, risk for inappropriate use of the internet and possible victimization. Regarding less physical activity, there will always be youth who are more motivated toward sports and maintaining higher levels of physical activity than others. Monitoring your youth's online activity in today's world is a must. As children move into their teens, balancing a youth's need for privacy with their need for direction and guidance is just as important as it ever was!

Asthma Linked to Negative Emotions In Family

In a recent issue of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, researchers have linked depressive reactions of children to an increase of severity in asthma attacks. The researchers point to the fact that approximately 4.8 million children in the US suffer from asthma. There is a long history of family research that points to an association between attachment of children to parents, the family emotional climate and asthma severity and number of hospitalizations. Children with asthma are at risk for depression and depressive and anxious thoughts and feelings can serve as triggers to the asthmatic response.

In an older article, the journal Pediatrics for Parents details a three point plan to help children with asthmatic conditions. First, the authors recommend that parents be prepared for asthmatic attacks by beginning with a plan developed in the child's physician's office. Know the various measures that need to be taken at each step prior to an emergency. The author recommends relaxation training as a preventive step.

Secondly, the authors recommend keeping a diary related to the severity and recording air flow levels and logging the perceived cause of the attack. Review the log with the child's physician. Finally, maintain confidence in the face of asthmatic concerns. They point to the fact that fear is a common reaction and that confidence that comes with being prepared and having the appropriate responses helps reduce the anxieties that can complicate the asthmatic response.

College Shooting at Virginia Tech Has Spurred Interest in Prevention

Following the worst shooting spree in recorded US history, mental health professionals are discussing ways to prevent such an occurrence from happening.

The problem with such shootings is that such events are rare. Behavioral scientists have difficulty studying events that have low base rates. Base rates are the number of incidents or behaviors that occur in a given population. Studying a "population" of school shooters is thus difficult and makes it even more difficult to make a prediction about the behavior and the likelihood of it occurring. This offers little reassurance for parents and school personnel.

Five factors, noted by author Katherine Newman, who wrote Rampage, the Social Roots of School Shootings, are necessary for a school shooter to actually carry out a killing. These conditions are not sufficient, she emphasizes, but are required. The students will perceive that they have been pushed to edge of the social circle and marginalized and that they have problems that make being an outsider a more difficult problem for them. She points to the importance of understanding cultural scripts as a model of conflict resolution. The youth must believe that shooting and killing, often portrayed in films, for example, as a means to an end, will solve their problem. She also discusses is the failure of surveillance systems to identify the at risk youth before the shooting. One of the problems most researchers believe is that that school shooters are often paranoid or do not engage in help seeking behavior. I believe the issue of screening for violence potential is important here and is similar to the issue of screening for domestic violence. Ten years ago, there were few, if any, physicians that screened for domestic violence on their intake forms. Now, the issue has been publicly discussed and more medical personal have questions on their intake forms about domestic violence in the home. I note medical professionals in general, because they are the largest screeners for mental health problems in the US health care system.

In a recent interview on NPR about the school shooting at Virginia Tech, Reid Meloy, noted forensic psychologist, pointed to the decline of mental health care in the US over the last three decades with its emphasis on briefer forms of care as one of the reasons that such youth may be missed in the system. I would add that mental health professionals need funding and training in the area of risk assessment- a type of specialized assessment- that promotes identification of suicide and homicide potential.

Finally, Newman discusses the importance of gun access. 60 percent of school shootings occur in rural settings, where it is easier for a youth to be come marginalized and where gun access may also be easier. These schools may additionally lack funding for metal detectors or other forms of gun control.

All of these factors point to some of the measures needed to help prevent school shootings. For example, since isolation and marginalization are factors, outreach work to help these students is necessary. It is clearly not enough to have a zero tolerance policy toward violence, though this may reduce some of the overt and highly visible pre-incident indicators of violence.

It is concerning that so much focus goes into the "why" and the reason social scientists are unable to predict mass shootings like this and less focus is given to victims and their families. Though not everyone who was associated with the school shooting will develop posttraumatic stress syndrome, a trauma related syndrome, they certainly are in a higher risk.

For further reading, I suggest:

Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shooting
by Katherine Newman
Published by Basic Books and available at Amazon

The Journal of School Violence
Published by the Haworth Press