The Screen Problem for Children with Anxiety

By Terry Lynam, via Multibriefs

Long after they're over, violent movies, shows and video games can negatively affect children with anxiety disorders.

"Children who have a pre-existing anxiety disorder are at greater risk for reacting more viscerally to violent or frightening images or stories," said Victor Fornari, M.D., director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York. "Distressing images from these sources can imprint in their memory and cause them to relive them through flashbacks or intrusive thoughts that can interfere with their daily lives."

But pediatricians can help prevent these ramifications. Incorporating behavioral health screenings into annual well-child visits can establish a mental health baseline and identify behavioral health concerns as they develop, according to Fornari.

For example, Massachusetts mandated in 2008 that annual well-child visits include behavioral health screenings. Through the initiative, 355,490 children received screening, with nearly 153,000 children having a previously unlisted behavioral health condition added to their medical chart, according to a study published in Pediatrics in 2014.

Screening for anxiety disorders — using rating scales such as the GAD-7, PSWQ or Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders — can identify children who are at greater risk for reacting adversely to scary images or stories.

Should patients experience loss of sleep or nightmares, which may indicate a reaction to something they've seen, pediatricians can use the baseline data to assess the severity of the condition and make a referral. The physician can also use the opportunity to advise parents about limiting exposure to violent media.

"Pediatric behavioral health screenings can shed light on early signs of a change in how a child functions, such as falling grades," Fornari said. "The earlier a primary care provider identifies young people who are experiencing stress, the earlier we can intervene and prevent problems."

Pediatricians can find extensive resource links at

Terry Lynam is senior vice president and chief public relations officer at the nonprofit Northwell Health, parent organization of Lenox Hill Hospital and Staten Island University Hospital.

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