Young children and the news: How much is too much?

Be aware, your children are watching and listening.

Many adults don't realize how much exposure children are receiving through news events. Photo credit: Dungan.
Many adults don't realize how much exposure children are receiving through news events. Photo credit: Dungan.

Many adults receive information on what is happening in the world around them through the news. We receive this news in a variety of ways that includes television, the internet, newspapers and news radio, among others. Graphic news coverage draws us in with breaking news reports, pictures of sensational events and real time coverage of local news happenings. When bad things happen, they receive high priority news coverage with the stories often repeated over and over and available 24 hours a day. But how does this affect young children who can be secondhand recipients to what is being watched and listened to in our homes?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes “exposure to violence in media, including television, movies, music and video games, as a significant risk to the health of children.” An average evening newscast can be exciting for a young child. The news has all the elements of a popular action movie, including violence, sex, action and lots of sensationalism.

Many adults don’t realize how much of this exposure children are receiving through violent or tragic news events. Think about your daily schedule: is the television on in the morning when the family is getting ready for school or work? Do you have the radio on in the car while driving children to day care or school? Do children see you reading the newspaper and overhear adult conversations on current events?

While news can be a positive educational experience (depending on the age of the child), over-exposure without adult intervention can pose significant problems in a child’s overall health and well-being. Reports on natural disasters, child abductions, shootings and riots can present disturbing images that frighten young children. Preschool children in particular are not always able to discern the difference between reality and fantasy and a story about flooding and houses that wash away may keep a child awake with worry when a major rainstorm hits. News stories about a major accident that involved a busload of passengers may cause a young child to fear his or her ride to school.

To help parents and caregivers consider how their news diet affects children in their care, Michigan State University recommends the following tips:

  • Limit exposure to TV news and violence. Be mindful of when the television is on as background noise. Don’t use media as a babysitter. Watch television with your child. Explore public television program, newspapers and magazines that are age-appropriate for your child. Balance your child’s media diet with other activities.
  • Discuss what you are seeing on television with your child. Talking about the news with kids happens in everyday moments. Consider the age and developmental stage of the child by finding out what the child knows about the topic, and assist by sharing a simple explanation of the events. Help your child think through what they are watching by asking questions, listening with your full attention, and having a discussion on what you’ve seen and how it relates to your lives and those of others. You may use this opportunity to talk about how you could or would help in a similar situation. Be certain to discuss the difference between fantasy (movie clip about a hurricane) and the reality of a situation. Explore the facts!
  • Reassure your child that he is safe and use examples that reference where you live in relation to the event and how you can be prepared if something similar were to occur near you. The American Psychological Association recommends adults should be attentive to a child’s concerns while assisting them by put their fears into perspective. Acknowledge your child’s concern by giving her feeling a name and discussing how that makes her feel.
  • Set an example for children. Be aware of your own media habits and model the behavior you’d like to see from your children. Plan for media-free family time.
  • Find help if you have a concern. If your child is experiencing sleeplessness, chronic worry, refusal to go to daycare or school or excessive fear, consult your physician, your child’s teacher or other professionals who can assist.

Unlike movies or children’s television programs, the news is real and can provide many opportunities for education as you talk with and teach your child about the world around them. For more on information caregiving or family issues that affect you, visit the family section of the MSU Extension site.

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