Sometimes no news is good news
Is it OK for children to watch bad news events as they unfold on TV, radio and other media?
There were some sombre moments in our house recently as I explained to my children about the murders of all those young people in Norway. I hadn't planned to tell them, but I got such a shock when I heard about it initially that I went straightaway to share the news with my wife and forgot that the children were present.
I rarely will deliberately tell them about such shocking, tragic and horrible events. I just don't think they need to know. Once they had heard about the killings, however, I was conscious that I needed to talk about it more.
My children vary in age from seven to 13 and so will have different capacities to process and reassure themselves about this or any of the innumerable tragic events that get reported on in the media. I believe they need their parents' support to try to make sense of the bad news stories that they hear.
So, what happens to children when they hear about wars, murders, abuse, kidnapping, tsunamis, droughts and the range of other horrible human behaviours and natural disasters? Moreover, what can we do to protect them, or at least cushion them, from the impact of such horrors?
It's impossible to fully measure the impact of news on children. But we know, as adults, that the 24-hour news cycle can distort and sensationalise things, making it difficult to put into perspective for our children, let alone our teenagers, or even ourselves at times.
For children, whose understanding of the world is mostly limited to their own experiences, the constant, relentless focus on specific news events makes them seem larger than life.
Research findings from one study in the UK, for example, suggest that children will begin to over-estimate the amount of crime that occurs in distant communities through repeated exposure to television news.
The same relentless focus on certain 'bad news' stories can also markedly affect our (and our children's) perception of how likely an event is to occur.
As a case in point, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann led to a massive over-estimation by parents and children alike of the risk of child abduction. As a result, children may feel unnecessarily threatened, unsafe, fearful, and anxious.
If we are lucky our children will let us know about the feelings they have, either through words or actions, and then we can do something about it.
As one mum described it to me: "My three-year-old wouldn't go to bed in case a 'salami' (tsunami) came and washed away her bed like all the poor people in 'Chapman' (Japan)."
Another mother explained: "One of my guys was upset a while back by all the economic bad news and announced in floods of tears one night that he would have to leave and find another family as we mightn't have enough money to keep him. He was absolutely traumatised. It's hard to appreciate the effect news can have on them."
Both of these anecdotes, which mums shared with me on my Facebook page, show how anxieties and fears are often more powerful when they are about things over which we have no control.
Usually, if we have influence over an event, then we can reduce our anxiety by taking some kind of action. But many of these bad news stories are about events that are beyond people's control.
Further research that has looked at children's reactions to television news shows that older children are more likely to be frightened by television news than are younger children, probably because they understand it better.
These children were interviewed about their comprehension of and emotional responses to everyday news stories. All of the children (aged eight to 12 years) were able to recall and describe news stories that made them feel upset.
Another interesting experiment in the US assessed children's reactions to particular features of television news. Children from two age groups (six- and seven-year-olds and 10- and 11-year-olds) viewed one of four versions of a news story about gang violence. Each version varied according to the inclusion of video footage of the crime or not (footage vs no footage) and the proximity of the crime (local vs non-local).
The results revealed that older children were more likely to be frightened by, and perceive themselves as personally vulnerable to, a story about a local as opposed to a non-local crime.
So it seems again that older children are more affected, because perhaps they can understand what is happening and correctly perceive the danger involved, especially if the gang violence was reported to be happening nearby.
The pervasive nature of news reporting is also an issue for families. Even if you decide to limit TV viewing, there is still radio reporting, print media reporting and the internet as alternative sources of news and information.
It used to be the case that we had to go and seek information. Now we, and our children, are fed the information through push technologies that actively alert us to news and send it to our desktops, iPads and smartphones. Online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook can be virulent environments for the spread of news.
The best we can do, then, is to filter or contextualise bad news for them. But when they are very small no news at all is the best option.
For this reason it is highly desirable to switch off as many, if not all, sources of news for the under-sevens. Turn off the TV and radio news at the top of the hour and half-hour. Read the newspaper out of range of young eyes that can be frightened by the pictures.
Pre-school children, for example, don't need to see or hear about something that will scare them. At this age, children will regularly confuse fact and fantasy and so it becomes very difficult for them to conceptualise and make sense of what is actually being described or displayed.
One mother gave me a particularly good recent example of this when she told me about her five-year-old who came up with the following idea:
"He wants to buy a ferry so that he can go and collect all the people in Somalia and bring them back to Ireland. He acknowledges it's a long journey so he said he would feed them 'something decent' on the way."
While this tale reflects a good understanding from the five-year-old of the need to offer some kind of help to people in Somalia, the true extent and complexity of the issues there are lost on him, thankfully.
When we notice that our small children are aware of different issues from the news we must try not to minimise or discount any concerns and fears that arise.
Do talk with them about what they understand but focus mostly on reassuring them about their safety. Since small children gain their security from you, sometimes you have to reassure them about your safety too.
Another key point for children this age is that they will react strongly to pictures of other young children in jeopardy. A different mother explained to me how she thought the Madeleine McCann story probably affected her children the most.
Whenever there were news stories about her or if white vans were seen in their local area her children became quite troubled going to sleep.
Sometimes we can worry that if we talk about difficult topics that they may have heard about on TV or the radio that we will increase their fears and make a situation worse. Some parents may leave things be in the hope that if their children aren't talking then they aren't bothered.
This is not always a good assumption to make. Sometimes children will hold back on telling us their fears and stresses because they believe that we magically already know what they think and feel or because they don't want to burden us, or appear weak or vulnerable to us.
As children get a bit older they have more capacity to understand what is being told to them in words and pictures. As the research shows, this can lead to even more anxiety because the dangers are better understood, too.
This is the time to carefully consider your child's maturity and temperament in deciding how to engage with them about what they have been witnessing.
Start by acknowledging their feeling (of worry, sadness, fear or whatever they express) and then you can try to reassure them that they are safe, despite whatever else is happening in the world.
Remind your children that even though a story may be getting a lot of attention, it was just one event, and was most likely a very rare occurrence.
Remember that your children will look to the way you handle your reactions to determine their own approaches. If you stay calm and considered, they will, too.
This was the experience of one mum at the time of the earthquake in Japan: "I explained what was happening in Japan in terms he (seven) could understand, we looked up some scientific info on it and we made a donation to the relief fund so he felt empowered that he had helped in some way.
"I also assured him that we don't suffer natural disasters like that over here so that he wasn't fearful it would happen to him. I hoped I had done enough and that news headlines would not upset him too much.
"Then at Sunday dinner he pushed his potatoes back into a funny formation to create a dam and then released a sea of gravy across the rest of plate and shouted 'tsunami!' and made all his carrots get out of the way. So I think it was on his mind but not in a disturbing way, but rather it was just something that happens."
For teenages existential questioning -- particularly with issues like death -- can become a big deal. Death is such an unknown phenomenon that many people, not just teens, find it hard to cope with the apparent random nature of it. This is particularly applicable to what happened in Norway, where the deaths were so violent.
Bad news will always be present so the best we can do is try to shelter our small children from it and give our older children the forum to understand, question and be reassured about their own safety and the safety of others.
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