Although news gleaned from television, radio, or the Internet
often is a positive educational experience for kids, problems
can arise when the images presented are violent or the stories
touch on disturbing topics.
News about a natural disaster, such as the devastating
earthquake in China or cyclone in Myanmar, could make kids worry
that something similar is going to hit home, or fear a part of
daily life - such as rain and thunderstorms - that they'd
never worried about before.
Reports on natural disasters, child abductions, homicides,
terrorist attacks, and school violence can teach kids to view the
world as a confusing, threatening, or unfriendly place.
How can you deal with these disturbing stories and images?
Talking to your kids about what they watch or hear will help them
put frightening information into a reasonable context.
How Kids Perceive the News
Unlike movies or entertainment programs, news is real. But
depending on a child's age or maturity level, he or she may not
yet understand the distinctions between fact and fantasy. By the
time kids reach 7 or 8, however, what they see on TV can seem all
too real. For some youngsters, the vividness of a sensational news
story can be internalized and transformed into something that might
happen to them. A child watching a news story about a bombing on a
bus or a subway might worry, "Could I be next? Could that
happen to me?"
Natural disasters or stories of other types of devastation can
be personalized in the same manner. A child in Massachusetts who
sees a house being swallowed by floods from a hurricane in
Louisiana may spend a sleepless night worrying about whether his
home will be OK in a rainstorm. A child in Chicago, seeing
news about an attack on subways in London,
might get scared about using public transportation
around town. TV has the effect of shrinking the world and
bringing it into our own living rooms.
By concentrating on violent stories, TV news also can promote a
"mean-world" syndrome and give kids an
inaccurate view of what the world and society are
Talking About the News
To calm children's fears about the news, parents should be
prepared to deliver what psychologists call "calm,
unequivocal, but limited information." This means delivering
the truth, but only as much truth as a child needs to know. The key
is to be as truthful yet as inexplicit as you can be. There's
no need to go into more details than your child is interested
Although it's true that some things - like a natural
disaster - can't be controlled, parents should still give kids
space to share their fears. Encourage them to talk openly about
what scares them.
Older kids are less likely to accept an explanation at face
value. Their budding skepticism about the news and how it's
produced and sold might mask anxieties they have about the stories
it covers. If older kids are bothered about a story, help them
cope with these fears. An adult's willingness to listen sends a
Teens also can be encouraged to consider why a frightening or
disturbing story was on the air: Was it to increase the
program's ratings because of its sensational value or because
it was truly newsworthy? In this way, a scary story can be turned
into a worthwhile discussion about the role and mission of the
Tips for Parents
Keeping an eye on kids' TV news habits can go a long way
toward monitoring the content of what they hear and see. Other
- Recognize that news doesn't have to be driven by
disturbing pictures. Public TV programs, newspapers, or
newsmagazines specifically designed for kids can be less
sensational - and less upsetting - ways of getting information to
- Discuss current events with your child regularly. It's
important to help kids think through stories they hear about. Ask
questions: What do you think about these events? How do you think
these things happen? These questions can encourage conversation
about non-news topics too.
- Put news stories in proper context. Showing that certain
events are isolated or explaining how one event relates to
another helps kids make better sense of what they hear. Broaden
the discussion from a disturbing news item to a larger
conversation: Use the story of a natural disaster as an
opportunity to talk about philanthropy, cooperation, and the
ability of people to cope with overwhelming hardship.
- Watch the news with your kids to filter inappropriate or
- Anticipate when guidance will be necessary and avoid shows
that aren't appropriate for your child's age or level of
- If you're uncomfortable with the content of the news or
if it's inappropriate for your child's age, turn it
- Talk about what you can do to help. In the case of a news
event like a natural disaster, kids may gain a sense of control
and feel more secure if you find ways to help those who have been
Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: May 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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