Children and the News
As television coverage of global conflict has escalated in recent years, so has concern about children witnessing horrific images of terrorism and war on the news. The Oklahoma City bombings, the 1991 Gulf War, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and the 2003 Iraq war have all been broadcast – sometimes live – into the living rooms of millions of families across the country. Even when the United States is not at war or under attack, the news can be a scary experience for many children, with stories of sniper attacks on innocent civilians in the D.C. area, the murder of a pregnant woman, the kidnapping of a young girl from her bedroom late at night, and shootings of children in schools.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer as to what is appropriate for children to see in the news, and what makes sense for a mature 16-year-old may be very different from what is appropriate for a five-year-old. All children are different, so that even those who are the same age may have a very different response to disturbing news. But given the prevalence of news media coverage of violent or catastrophic events, helping young people cope with their exposure to television news is critical.
A significant number of children regularly watch the news. Even if children do not select the news themselves, they may still see or hear news stories because their parents are watching. There has been far less scientifi c research about children's exposure to the news than there has been about entertainment media, whether it is video game violence, drugs and alcohol in the movies, or gender stereotypes on television. This fact sheet is designed to bring together the most relevant research that has been conducted about the impact of news on children, in times of war and in times of relative peace.
Children and News about Terrorism and War
- For the majority of American children, the real-life horrors of terrorism and war are viewed as images on the TV screen. Watching these tragic events televised can be overwhelming for children and make them feel upset and unsafe. It is diffi cult to determine, however, whether exposure to disturbing news images can make some children more anxious and fearful or whether children who are already distressed choose to watch the TV coverage.
- Watching an event replayed repeatedly can increase stress and anxiety among young children who may think that the catastrophe is happening over and over again because they cannot distinguish between live pictures and replays.
- After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, complaints about replaying graphic images of the planes striking the World Trade Center and the towers collapsing led the networks to reconsider their coverage. ABC imposed a ban on replaying the images and instead used still photos, and other networks limited the use of the video footage.
- Watching extensive news coverage of horrifi c events can contribute to posttraumatic stress. However, there is debate about whether disturbing televised images alone can lead to these symptoms. It may be that news images trigger symptoms among children who suffered previous trauma in their lives, or are sensitive to their parents' fears and anxieties.
- Mental health experts recommend that commemorating an anniversary of an event can be therapeutic, but caution that extensive coverage to mark remembrances of catastrophes such as 9/11 may re-evoke the horror of the experience, especially for young viewers.
Reprinted with the permission of the Kaiser Family Foundation. © 2008 The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
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