Keeping vigil when it comes to monitoring (and hopefully managing) your child's TV-watching is turning into a 24/7 endeavor: there's primetime, daytime and in-between-time (it's impossible to ignore the impact of commercial adverts). And let us not forget the news. Whether intentional or not, your children are exposed to media coverage of world events â€“ often gut-wrenching, traumatic images â€“ each time the tube is flicked on. Short bytes of news updates occur on the hour smack in the middle of regular family programming. Little Mikey channel-hops in search of "Blue's Clues" and suddenly is staring at collapsing skyscrapers and bombed-out army vehicles in the Middle East. And then there are the all-news channels (Newsworld, CNNâ€¦) whose 20-second clips jolt the most seasoned viewer. And children's reactions — their ability to process what they see on the news — are just as varied as their personality make-ups, upbringing, home life and their ages, whether they're in senior kindergarten or in junior high.
"Certain kids will be more vulnerable, including those who are worriers and generally anxious, or children who have suffered any serious traumaâ€¦or who have a vivid imagination," said Dr. Arlette Lefebvre on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 World Trade Centre catastrophe. Lefebvre is a staff psychiatrist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children who works with the Media Awareness Network (MNet), a Canadian non-profit organization (with representatives from TV networks and educational groups) that has busied itself with the matter of media and its effects on children since 1996.
The 9/11 tragedy crystallized many professional and parental concerns about children's response to news coverage. Suddenly, instead of debating the allegedly violent aspects of "South Park," parents were struggling with how to manage their kids' news-watching. "With very young children this may mean shielding them from exposure to as much of the coverage as possible," said Jan D'Arcy, Mnet's executive director, "while with teens we'd recommend taking a very proactive approach by using the media with them and helping them to think critically about what they see, hear and read. Helping them now to understand how the media work and the media's role to inform is an enormous gift that will be invaluable to them throughout their lives."
Both D'Arcy and Lefebrve advise a three-pronged approach:
(a) monitor media exposure (know what news your children are watching);
(b) mediate media images and messages (help your kids process and understand what they've seen); and
(c) mitigate the media's impact (understand your child's reaction and work with them).
Tips for managing children's news exposure
MNet crafted a tip-sheet* for parents and educators to help manage children's news-watching:
1. Don't assume that children are unaware of news events.
Question your children about what they have learned and how they're feeling.
2. Look for signs of anxiety in children.
Some kids are more susceptible than others to anxiety about news coverage they've seen. Don't assume an across-the-border response from children.
3. Be selective in your media consumption, particularly with young children.
Protect kids from intensely disturbing or frightening images. Don't leave the TV or radio on as background noise, don't watch coverage of traumatic events with young children in the room, and avoid media "replays" in the days following a catastrophe.
4. Help children to feel safe.
Kids need to have the risks to themselves and their families put into a realistic context. Childen need to be reassured that terrible events happening elsewhere in the world do not necessarily pose a direct threat to them. Explain how governments and organizations such as the United Nations and UNICEF are working hard to make the world a safer place for all children.
5. Make the time to listen to any concerns children may have.
Be honest when answering questions, but avoid elaborate and detailed explanations. Some children may ignore news coverage of catastrophes in order to avoid unpleasant feelings, which is fine. It's okay to just let them be kids.
6. Tell them how you're feeling.
Don't ignore your own response to traumatic events and the effect it may have on your own emotions and behaviour. Share your feelings with kids. Young children may become more fearful if they sense anxiety and tension in the adults around them, so it's important to talk!
7. Help older children to analyze media coverage.
Use this opportunity to educate kids about how the media works. Watch news coverage with older kids and talk about it. Explain that news is a business and the need to attract audiences can influence the way world events are reported.
8. Expand your sources of information.
Get beyond TV. Remember that kids may be exposed to news coverage on the Internet, newspapers, magazines and radio. If your children are reading about current events on the Internet, check out the sources to ensure credibility. Compare the coverage by Canadian, American and other international media. Have a chat about the differences in how various media approach the same event.
9. Emphasize the importance of tolerance and respect.
Explain that media coverage of world conflicts can trigger powerful feelings of fear and anger in people, which can turn into hate directed at certain groups of people. Explain how negative stereotypes can lead to simplistic and dangerous "good versus evil," "bad guys versus good guys" perceptions. Emphasize that peaceful solutions to conflict are always preferable to retaliation and violence.
10. Emphasize the positive things that may arise from traumatic events.
Lefebrve urges parents to talk to their kids about the shared outpouring of grief that follows a tragedy, whether it's concern for the victims' families or admiration for heroes. "Traumatic events can make us pull together and talk about the importance of loved ones and the value of life."
11. Take action to make a difference.
Gandhi said: "Be the change you want to see in the world." Encourage your children to be active in the community. It will help them feel less helpless in a world rife with war and sudden change. MNet suggests parents let children choose their own course of action, whether it's volunteering at a local food bank, making a donation to help refugees or writing a letter expressing their concerns to the local newspaper.
*Adapted from the Media Awareness Network guide on Teaching Kids How to Cope with the News
Some helpful links: