Managing Your Child's Exposure to News Media

Seeing and hearing about disturbing events may cause children to experience stress and anxiety. Here's how to address fears and minimize kids' media exposure.


+ enlarge image Help your child make sense out of what she has seen.

Despite your best efforts, it's quite likely that your child will be exposed to news of crime, tragedy, terrorism, and war via the media. Even were you to keep your children at your side every second, it would be difficult to completely seal them off from hearing or seeing footage of such events. So, what can you do when your child spots raw news footage you'd rather they not see? Dr. Marion Bilich, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, offers this advice:

"You shouldn't feel guilty about what happened. It's inevitable that your child will eventually see pictures or videos of terrorist attacks or war. While you have some control over what she sees in your home, you cannot control everything that she will see. In the weeks and months ahead there are likely to be more disturbing events.

"What is important is that you help your child make sense out of what she has seen. If she's upset, encourage her to express her feelings. Ask her open-ended questions that encourage her to share her feelings and confusion. Say, for example: 'Could you tell me a little about the pictures or videos you saw?' You might also encourage her to make a drawing of what she saw and then talk about the drawing together."

In addition, Dr. Bilich recommends that parents consider reducing their own media consumption to maintain as much control as possible over what children see. Turn instead to radio, newspapers, and Internet sites for your news.

Kids Ages 5-11

+ enlarge image Read magazines and newspaperswith your child and discuss the topics together.

When it comes to media exposure and elementary school-aged children, parents need to monitor, but not necessarily block, all input.

For the youngest ones in this category -- ages 5 and 6 -- experts still recommend a blackout. At this age, the ability to process abstract concepts is still evolving. So a first grader who sees repeated footage of airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center may have trouble understanding that this event is not happening in real time over and over again.

Experts recommend you keep the TV off when your youngest elementary school age kids are around and monitor what print or online coverage of war and terrorism they may see. About the age of 7, a shift begins to occur. Now, your child may have a better understanding of the world. For example, he may better understand how far away a conflict is from his home town. At this point in child development, it is appropriate to allow some exposure to media coverage of war issues.

Some media watching tips for kids ages 7-11:

  • When possible, use newspaper and magazine stories. You can read them to your children, or let them try to read themselves. A print story is something you can easily scan ahead of time so you're prepared to answer any questions. Also, it will not surprise you with any graphic images, as a TV spot could.
  • If you do let your child watch TV news coverage of a war, sit with him and discuss it. Add your own commentary to fill in questions your child may have: How far away is this? What's happening in this picture? Why are we seeing these particular images? Be present to provide context. And ask your child if he has questions of his own.
  • Know what your child is seeing online. Often, Internet sites that you have bookmarked as a home page will carry news coverage. As you would with television, use this media with your child and be there to answer questions or provide reassurance.

Preteens and Teenagers

+ enlarge image Help teens to learn from the mediain a positive way.

The media is a major presence in the lives of most preteens and teens. Chances are good your child at this age is already seeing images of war and terrorism. But that does not mean you should consider your role in media monitoring to be futile. In fact, parents and caregivers have a key responsibility to help children at this age learn to use information they receive via the media in a positive way. It's a prime opportunity to help them learn to be successful media consumers. Some tips:

  • Watch the news together. Discuss the nature of the stories you see and be prepared to offer your own reaction and hear what your kids have to say. Allow them to express their views even if you are not in agreement.
  • Talk about the Internet. Many kids get their news online. Talk with them about the sites they visit for news. Discuss with them the nature of the Internet and its relative lack of controls. They may be exposed to information that seems official but is not -- help them to learn to differentiate.
  • Provide historical context. Teach them about the history of the United States and our country's involvement in wars. Understanding what happened in the Persian Gulf War, the War in Vietnam and even World War II can help kids at this age process the information they are getting and put it in context.
+ enlarge image Be sure to watch with your children to answer their questions.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry offers these tips for mitigating the damaging effects of overexposure to the news.

1. Limit the amount of time your child watches news shows. For children under 6, keep the news off when they're in the room. For ages 6-11, some limited viewing of the news is okay. Watch with them.

2. Make sure you have adequate time and a quiet place to talk if you anticipate that the news is going to be troubling or upsetting to the child. For children under 6, follow your child's cue. If he or she does not bring it up, don't open a discussion about a news event. For kids 7-11, you may ask if the child has seen or heard of the event and offer to answer any questions.

3. Watch the news with your child.

4. Ask your child what hee has heard and what questions he may have. Be specific when answering your child's questions. If the TV image depicts soldiers in battle, say who they are and where they are.

5. Provide reassurance regarding your child's own safety in simple words emphasizing that you are going to provide a safe home and to keep your child safe. You may want to discuss with your child your family's plan in the event of an emergency, or steps her school has already taken to ensure her safety.

6. Look for signs that the news may have triggered fears or anxieties such as sleeplessness, fears, bedwetting, crying, or talking about being afraid.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: Children and the News

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