Is nuclear war a real possibility once more?

If it is, we need to prepare young people for the harm that this threat can have on developing minds, writes Justin Thomas

Awoken from a deep sleep, sitting bolt upright in bed, a seven-year-old me is gazing intensely and expectantly at the window. Instinctively, I have momentarily stopped breathing. This is part of the body's fear reflex, allowing us to hear better. I'm listening out for the sound of breaking glass, which, I believe, is a tell-tale sign that the blast radius is approaching. I stare at the window expecting the glass to shatter - any second now - cutting my face to ribbons before I'm incinerated along with my mum, baby sister and everyone else I've ever known. It was the 1980s, and I had the nuclear night terrors.

Back at the height of the Cold War, the fear associated with the threat of a thermonuclear catastrophe became the subject of a major study undertaken by the American Psychiatric Association. The APA set up a task force on the psychosocial impacts of nuclear developments, which, among other things, examined the attitudes of children and adolescents to the nuclear threat.

The interviews with children, focusing on the threat of nuclear war, revealed that there was a great deal of uncertainty and pessimism about the future. Published in The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, the young people's responses expressed doubts about the continuity of human existence. The majority of respondents saw nuclear war as a real possibility, and a sizable minority thought it a near inevitability.

One child commented: "I think that unless we do something about nuclear weapons, the world and the human race may not have much time left." Heartbreakingly, another child suggested, “it seems bad because we're little children and we didn't have any fun yet".

One conclusion the psychiatrists drew from the study was that fear of a nuclear holocaust seemed likely to have a negative impact on personality development. The psychiatrists argued that such fear might lead to some adolescents becoming disillusioned and highly present-orientated, unwilling to delay gratification and make plans for the future. Such traits are often associated with drug and alcohol use and also with escaping into fantasy worlds, due to a lack of confidence in the real one.


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Thankfully, the Cold War thawed. Our heightened fears of nuclear annihilation exited the stage. Unlike me, my children have never suggested that we build a nuclear fallout shelter in the garden, or asked, "what will we do if there is a nuclear war?". However, recent world events are bringing the threat of nuclear annihilation back onto the centre stage of public consciousness.

In a recent freestyle rap video, which went viral on social media, the rapper Eminem spat the following vitriolic lyrics: "Cause what we got in office now's a kamikaze, that'll prob'ly cause a nuclear holocaust".  This particular line reflects the fact that the nuclear threat is back on the political agenda and also on the minds of young people.

Social media, home to many of today’s young people, is now also a place where some world leaders choose to make their veiled and not so veiled nuclear threats. For example, Donald Trump tweeted: “My first order as president was to renovate and modernise our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before ...”

With reference to fellow nuclear sabre-rattler, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un, Mr Trump tweeted: "I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful secretary of state, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man ... Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!".

Regrettably, the bogeyman of my childhood, the threat of nuclear annihilation, is making its way back on to centre stage. Is this the final act? Probably not. However, we need to prepare for the psychological harm that this threat can have on developing minds. If young people see no future, this can lead to hopelessness, loss of motivation, anger and the kind of escapism often associated with future damaging behaviours such as substance abuse and empty escapism.

Concerns about the future can often rain down destruction on the present. Future-proofing our children means helping them better manage their anxieties, whatever the source.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National