These days, people get their news anywhere and everywhere — on their laptops, iPhones, even in the backseat of many taxicabs and in elevators. Inevitably, young children and teenagers will catch snippets of world news, much of which covers tragic material that can be tough for young brains to comprehend.
Some parents have a strict “no news” rule in their homes, at least until they feel their kids are old enough to handle the good, the bad, and the ugly. But what age is that, exactly, and how can you control a child’s media exposure when they’re not home? It’s hard to shield children from what they see or hear at school and in other people’s homes. Is the news simply too much for some kids to handle?
What the research says
Kids find the news far scarier than the violence they see on TV shows and movies, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics. Perhaps that’s because in fictional shows, bad guys are often caught, whereas in real life, that’s not always the case.
Researchers showed nearly 600 kids ages 8 to 12 content that included war images, shootings, house fires, and plane crashes, describing some of it as news and some of it as fiction. “We found that the children who thought they were seeing real events had significantly higher fright responses — they showed a greater emotional reaction — than those who believed they were watching a fictional show,” study co-author Brad Bushman, a professor of psychology and communication studies at the University of Michigan, told Parenting magazine. The kids worried about the images they saw, and whether the same thing could happen to them or their families long after the TV was turned off. “I think it’s easy to underestimate how upsetting violent content can be to children – partly because we’re so used to it, and also perhaps because we don’t think young kids really understand or are paying attention to what they’re seeing,” added Bushman. “But it can cause a great deal of anxiety and problems, like trouble sleeping.”
Several studies show that older children – ages 8 to 12 – are more frightened by television news than younger children. One University of Wisconsin-Madison survey of school-age kids found that 37 percent were frightened by a TV news story. The older they were, the greater the tendency to respond with fright to violence – between strangers in particular.
What the experts say
Many experts agree that kids younger than 6 should generally be kept away from the news. They may not be able to understand what they’re seeing at that age, but they’re still absorbing it, and they may not be ready developmentally to place it into the context of real life. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that if parents are comfortable having older kids watch the news, record it and watch with them so you can answer their questions. Just skip the graphic details. “While children ages 6 to 8 begin to think more logically about events, they still don’t need to know everything that is going on,” Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College, told PBS. “If your child is watching, reading, or listening to the news (even accidentally), you may need to remind him how far away the violence is or how rare certain crimes really are.”
Others recommend waiting until kids are between the ages of 8 and 10 before allowing them to watch news programs. If your child expresses worry that something she sees or hears could happen to her, “you could go to the library for a book on whatever news topic was worrying her: tsunamis, crime, etc.,” Jan Faull, an educator and author of Unplugging Power Struggles, told Parents magazine. “School-aged children feel more comfortable with difficult topics when they better understand them.”
How do you know when your child is ready for hard news? When he asks questions about news he heard in school or requests to watch the news at home, experts say. “These are signs that a child is ready for some limited exposure,“ child development expert and author Jane Katch, told PBS.
Even teens may need parental guidance when it comes to certain subjects. Kids in general don’t always have the ability to understand events in context, much less know whether or not a source of information is credible, Caroline Knorr, a parenting editor at Common Sense Media, wrote on its website. “And while older teens are better able to understand current events, even they face challenges when it comes to sifting fact from opinion — or misinformation.”
What the parents say
“While it’s important to my husband and I that our boys, 6 and 8, have a solid knowledge of the world and an appreciation of the privilege they have of being born in the United States, we do not let them watch the news because we live in a scary world. I would rather manage the message and share news that I feel is appropriate for them at a level of detail that is suitable for their age and individual temperaments. The news is just too scary to watch without the mama filter. Shoot, it’s often too scary for me!” — Sherice Torres, San Jose, Calif.
“My 15-year-old reads stories online daily, about politics, human rights, science, and public figures (not celebrities), then we talk about it. My 10-year-old doesn’t read or watch the news, but is present when we discuss many of the topics.” — Corie Stagner, Flower Mound, Texas
“At 9 years old, I believe my kid is old enough to process watching the news, form opinions, and be aware of what’s happening in the world. Education tempered with love and critical thinking is my approach.” — Bianca Hawkins, Richmond, Va.
The bottom line
Preschool children may not be ready to see or hear news that will likely scare them, especially because they can easily confuse facts with fantasies and fears. If they are exposed to it, try not to minimize any concerns they have and reassure them they’re safe. For school-age kids, especially those 8 and older, it’s OK to expose them to the news, as long as you can filter or limit it depending on their maturity level and temperament. Keep graphic details to a minimum, and be prepared for questions down the line as it can take some kids time to absorb what they see or hear. Most teens are aware of the news with or without you, so engage them in topics you feel are appropriate, and let them know they can come to you with questions. Whatever their age, try not to dismiss their concerns. News can be difficult to understand and stomach sometimes, even for adults. Imagine what it can do to kids.
(Photo: Getty Images)