‘Will this happen to me?’ Children’s exposure to disaster and violence in the news

Images of blood-covered children and horrified adults, sounds of howling winds and screaming people, live videos of approaching storms and devastating destruction have all permeated our media coverage of the recent tornado in Moore, Okla. Such news coverage, tagged “Disaster Marathon” by Tamar Liebes, an Israeli media researcher, represents common journalistic practices for covering horror tales of suicide bombings, natural disasters and major accidents. With handheld mobile devices, every passer-by can document the experience in sight and sound (and contribute to our thirst for gory images) as we struggle with the emotional weight of making sense of such tragedies.

But what about our children?

Despite the typical warning to parents that “this report may not be suitable for children,” it has become almost impossible to entirely shield children from troubling news coverage. Whether they surf the net proactively, motivated by their curious and inquisitive minds, or accidently raise their eyes from the tablet-game they are engrossed in on the rug to the sound of sirens on TV, children today are aware of the world around them a lot more than we have given them credit for – and from a very young age.

A recent international study, for example, asked young children in 19 countries around the world about the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. It found that the vast majority of them were quite aware of the events, and were able to talk about them and draw images resembling those circulating in the news worldwide.

In the interviews I conducted in Carbondale, Ill., as part of this study (coordinated by the International Center Institute for Youth and Educational Television [IZI], in Munich, Germany), I was amazed to find spontaneous drawings of 7-year-olds, replicating camera angles from above of cars and houses being swept away, just like those imprinted on our minds from watching television news globally. Children also expressed anxiety over the damage caused to nuclear plants, all happening thousands of miles away from the safety of rural Illinois.

These and other findings about children’s exposure to news are reasons for concern for parents. Children are bombarded by a scary world that seems out of control. They see helpless adults that cannot be trusted to protect them or restore safety. The accumulated research on the effects of scary images on children suggests that they can be traumatized by such portrayals – and that these media experiences can linger for years to come, affecting the children’s behavior and well-being.

Remember the movie “Jaws”? Many stories have documented the trace of fear caused by wading in the ocean that the movie left behind. The sight of Hurricane Sandy hitting the New Jersey shore, the chaos in the streets of Boston after the Marathon bombing, or that of a tornado funnel approaching a school can have a similar effect.

Children’s emotional reactions to scary news have been a topic of research for many years, suggesting that their developmental stage, life experience and caregivers’ reactions make a difference. A 4-year-old girl probably would not experience anxiety caused by the melting of Antarctica, but she might have nightmares over an imaginary blue monster. The 12-year-old living in the U.S. Midwest will naturally react differently to the coverage of tornado damage, deemed immediately relevant and threatening, than to the threat of nuclear missiles from Iran. Conversely, the 12-year-old in the Middle East will react to these news stories in quite the opposite way.

But these same findings can also be illuminating and framed as potentially “good news” for parents. Children are young people in their own right who are eager to learn about the world around them. Developing critical habits of news consumption is part of civic engagement and care about one’s social and physical world. Over-shielding children from news, sending them away because “news is not for children,” can serve to foster narrow-mindedness and self-focus while alienating them from their place in the world – and their responsibility as a member of a community. It also renders them helpless and out of control of their own life circumstances.

So what is a parent to do? Do children need to be exposed to a bombardment of disasters? Of course not. But neither should we deceive them about the world around them by covering up unhappiness and injustices. Developing resilience and agency requires knowledge and responsible adult guidance. Moderate news coverage can be an opportunity for dialogue about risks.

Yes, tornadoes and hurricanes hit, accidents happen, and wars take place despite our good intentions. But there are things people do about these events to restore order and aid the needy. Rather than dwelling on the victimization, emphasize the heroism, the community connectedness and the organized help. Allow children to talk freely about their anxieties, rather than dismissing them, and remove those threats that are irrelevant to your own life circumstances.

There is really no need for a child to worry about a tsunami threatening him in Missouri, or the atrocities in Syria reaching her in Indiana. Yes, these things happen in the world, but they are not happening to us. We care about them deeply, but we are safe here. Instead, work with children to develop a possible plan of action to empower them to have agency, rather than to see themselves as potential victims.

Even the youngest child can have an active role depending on age and circumstances (whether drawing a picture for an injured child; donating some pocket money for victims of a disaster; or planning a course of action in one’s own home). Keep the child’s age in mind. While treating the 8-year-old respectfully requires sincere responses to questions, a 3-year-old may be comforted by a mere hug.

Scholars studying children and media suggest that despite our lamenting the decline of interest in news, children today are exposed to news voluntarily or accidently probably more than ever before. They are curious about the world around them, and want their questions answered and their opinions about events to be heard. Some countries in the world (e.g., the United Kingdom, Germany and Israel) have developed special news programs and websites devoted to children’s news, adapting topics and type of coverage to different age groups and helping them grow into engaged adults. It is perhaps time for American media to step up to the plate and consider children and young people as their audience, too.

Lemish is a professor and interim dean of the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University.

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