Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Children watching disasters on the TV news

The horrific scenes of the aftermath of cyclone Haiyan are playing relentlessly on news services and no one could fail to be moved by such devastation.  The one good thing that may come from this repetition is that more and more people will be moved to donate to the relief appeals.It has however made me think about the effects on children and young people of graphic news footage and stories of some of the horrors of our world.

Many studies have made recommendations about the amount of time that children should spend watching television, or in front of computer screens, generally because of concerns about children's health, weight and learning.  The University of Michigan has a digest of findings from a number of studies in the USA. In Australia, the Raising Children Network gives recommendations for the number of hours for different age groups and last weekend, noted children's author, Mem Fox questioned the amount of time that children spent in front of smart phones and tablets.

The content of news bulletins has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.  Such events as the attacks on the World Trade Centre, the tsunami in 2004, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, periodic Australian bushfires and now typhoon Haiyan have had massive, graphic coverage.  These are events that children do need to know about because they are part of the world in which they live, and they are often aware of the parents' reactions to these events, but at the same time, they also need reassurance that they are in no immediate danger.

Television news services unfortunately, in an effort to ensure that people will watch their evening news bulletins, sometimes show graphic footage in the midst of prime children's viewing time, although public pressure has seen some reduction in this.  I have also, occasionally, heard warnings to viewers like "the following footage is likely to shock some viewers", but usually by the time I find the remote control it is too late.  If we as adults are shocked, it is also likely to expect that children will be shocked.  We cannot rely on the belief that they are "too young to understand".  That, in fact, is precisely the issue...we can put things in context, understand that this is shocking but that we are personally in no immediate danger, but pictures of planes flying into buildings, people drowning, or fires approaching are immediate dangers in the minds of many children.  It is the images that they see, the sounds they hear, that they respond to, not the detailed explanations of the news analysts which are often in language they don't understand using concepts that are beyond their grasp. 

In The Netherlands, since 1980, there has been a short nightly broadcast of the news aimed at children aged between 9 and 12 which aims to make the main stories intelligible to children in this age group   This seems to be like our ABC program, Behind the News, whose current feature story on typhoon Haiyan is in simple language and focuses in simple form on what happened and what the people need now, and is in sharp contrast to last night's adult news which constantly mentioned and showed footage of bodies being removed. A Dutch study in 2002 found that even this children's news produced a fear reaction in more that 30% of children, though this was much less than the nearly 50% reaction to adult news. 

What does this mean for parents and carers?
  • If children watch the news, watch with them.
  • Talk about the news stories with children in terms that they can understand.
  • Reassure children that they are safe, that people are helping eg aid workers, police, firemen.  Check the article from the Dutch study which lists stories that children find particularly troubling.
  • Use Behind the News or News on 3 (Daily at 7.55pm on ABC3) to help children understand the stories.
  • Mealtimes are for eating and talking, not for watching the news or any other television.
This is an excllent resource for information and guidance about children and the media in Australia.

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