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When the evening news reports bombings, the slaughter of children in their classroom and sleazy murder trials, what's a father to do?
Monday, May 20, 2013
Every morning during breakfast before the school day starts, my 6-year-old daughter and I pore over the comics section of this newspaper.
I read the funnies to her, usually sticking to the kid-friendly “Red and Rover,” “Garfield,” “Family Circus” and a few others that she might actually understand.
Explaining “Get Fuzzy,” “Dilbert” and “Doonesbury” would take too long and cause her to miss the bus. She does like “Zits,” however, possibly planning ahead for those teenage rebellion years.
The rest of the paper is pushed well out of sight, especially on days when the front page is devoted to tragic tales of bombings, shootings and murder trials, which, as an unfortunate testament to the times we live in, is pretty often. For the same reasons, I never watch the local and national newscasts with her.
In other words, this longtime newsman does not watch, read or talk about the news with his kid. Not when it’s bad news.
I have no idea if I am doing the right thing. Perhaps I am sheltering her from the world too much. Lately, several of my friends with kids have been sending around an article on Facebook from Psychology Today about overprotective modern parents who are raising a nation of wimps. Maybe I’m guilty of growing my own wimp.
But when the evening news shows videos of the Boston Marathon bombing explosions from multiple angles, and when the news is dominated by the faces of deranged young men armed with semi-automatic weapons who slaughter schoolchildren my daughter’s age in their classroom, and when the bubbleheads on cable news shows spend hours analyzing sleazy murder trials like they’re breaking down the Super Bowl, well, what’s a father to do?
Can I at least wait until she’s in the second grade before we start talking about today’s terrorist attack before Snoopy fights the Red Baron in “Peanuts”?
Numerous child psychologists, family counselors and plain old parents seem to be on my side.
Signs of stress
Children of all ages, not just younger kids in the lower elementary school grades, can be stressed out by the evening news. Older kids may even be more prone to news-caused anxiety because they can distinguish that the news is real and not a fictional TV show.
Hallie Carr, director of school counseling for Roanoke City Public Schools, recommended that parents record the news and watch later or preview a newscast before kids watch it.
“A 24-hour news cycle might be fine for adults, but it’s not good for children,” she said. She added that if kids watch the news, parents should watch it with them and ask them questions about how they feel about what they’ve seen and heard.
She said that older children might be less forthcoming about their feelings, which means parents must look for other signs of how bad news and violence are affecting their kids.
“Parents have to be aware of how their children are coping even if they are not communicating verbally,” Carr said. “Are they sleeping through the night? Has their behavior changed? Are they looking for excuses to not go to school? Even if they are not coming with questions or talking about their fears and apprehensions, be aware that fear and concerns are still there.”
There are good reasons for kids not to watch the news at all. An article for The Future of Children project co-founded by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution reported that “[s]everal studies have found that exposure to news increases children’s fear and anxiety.”
Some of the research was old, dating back to coverage of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168 people. A study two years later found that 20 percent of sixth-graders who lived 100 miles away and had no connections to anyone who died in the bomb attack still showed signs of anxiety and had difficulty in school or home because of their memories of the attack.
The report found that “children who had watched, listened to, or read more news about the bombing reported greater symptoms of post-traumatic stress.”
Things did not improve in the new millennium for children. Many kids who watched coverage of the 9/11 attacks, child abductions and mass shootings exhibited nervousness and fears. Nearly half the children in one survey reported that they worried that they or someone they knew could be harmed in a terrorist attack. Children who watched the news showed higher levels of anxiety.
Back to comics
But that means half of the kids in the research showed no ill effects, right? Eighty percent of the kids surveyed after Oklahoma City were all fine and dandy. High numbers of children can watch blood, gore and explosions, then go out and climb a tree and forget what they have seen.
Like I said, what’s a dad to do?
Sometimes, you need to step back and take a breath. Despite ceaseless reporting of tragedies, violent crime rates have been declining for two decades. It’s never too early for a kid to learn that the odds of something bad happening to them are extremely low.
“There are some scenarios in the media that get blown out of proportion,” said Tara Mitchell, a child psychologist with Carilion Clinic. “It’s something that’s very difficult for a young person to grasp.”
That is why it is important to talk with your children about what they see and hear, she said.
My wife and I limit the amount of news our 6-year-old sees. I am aware that she could hear about tragic news stories at school, either from classmates or perhaps indirectly from teachers or staff. Her school practices lockdown drills and has, in fact, been locked down once this school year. She knows that there are bad people out there.
I try to be coy and ask if any of her friends talk about what they see on the news. So far, it sounds like none of the kids watches or reads the news, which is good in one way, but could also mean the news industry is doing a sorry job of recruiting young customers.
I have 300 other satellite channels, and I am not afraid to use them. The newspaper has other sections, including the one that carries my column, which my daughter likes to point out every other Monday.
Of course, this is one I might not show her. Too hard to explain. Wonder what that nutty Garfield is up to today?
Ralph Berrier Jr.’s column runs every other Monday in the Extra section.
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