TV news & kids – can they handle it?

Turn on the news any day of the week and you’re certain to see some scary news. It could be the most recent shooting, floods rendering people homeless, and fires eating up large chunks of the country – including the inhabitants. And once the news latches onto a subject, they explore every facet of it – especially the larger network news like CNN and FOX news, where they can spend hours delving into every single detail relating to a traumatic event.
Children are often sitting by us, watching what we watch, perhaps while playing with their toys. But you know, just like when you’re talking about something you don’t want them to hear, that they’re listening. Whether it’s the latest family gossip about Uncle Dominic or the most recent news update on a mass shooting, kids are going to hear it. Especially if you don’t want them to!
But is that exposure harmful? Obviously, if a child is already diagnosed with PTSD or has suffered from a recent trauma, too much distressing news can exacerbate symptoms they are already experiencing. It can entrench their perceptions of the world as a scary place, where nobody has any control, and bad things happen all the time. For those children parents must control what news they are exposed to. This might mean parents are only reading the news on their phones, where children cannot see, or are listening to newscasts once the children are safe in bed. Not to say that these children should be completely sheltered from reality, but they need their news filtered while they heal.
For most children, while they can probably tolerate a bit more exposure, limiting their exposure is still key. Studies have shown that children exposed to television news can show more PTSD and stress symptoms than children who were not exposed to television news. The children who were exposed to more news tending to show more symptoms. However, news is very important to us: telling us what is going on, instructions in case of emergency, and helping us to be connected to people all over the world. So what can parents do to lessen the effects of traumatic media exposure?
The easiest is to limit the amount of news your child watches. Use their age and maturity levels, as well as their levels of confusion and distress when exposed to news to guide you. While many children are capable of handling the basic news reports; watching survivor interviews, dissections of the trauma, or repeated segments may be too much. Watching the news hour after hour can cause vicarious trauma in your child – and yourself.
Another great strategy is watch the news WITH your kid. Sit next to them, listen to them and be mindful of how distressed they are becoming. Process the news with them afterwards, being certain to remind them that the new focuses on bad things, and often doesn’t portray all the wonderful things that people do for each other every day. Help them put the news into perspective.
Sometimes reading about the news is less traumatizing than watching it. If this is the case, then sit down and read a newspaper account of the event. Discuss it with your kids, and help them put it into perspective. No matter how your kid is exposed, they will probably have questions. Answer them as honestly as you can – and it’s OK to say that you don’t know.
And always remind the children that no matter how many people there are out there who are doing things that are bad and scary, that there are many, many more people out there working to keep them safe and to help them. Remind them about our armed forces, police officers, fire fighters, EMTs, doctors, teachers, scientists and counselors who are all working to help keep them safe and to keep them that way. Empower them to make a difference in someone else’s life. Perhaps they can donate something to help survivors, or create a card or song or poem to send to survivors. Maybe they want to help prevent things from happening. Empowering them protects them from feeling like victims.
Most importantly, model healthy news habits yourself. Kids do what they see.

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