More than ever, children witness innumerable, sometimes traumatizing, news events on TV. It seems that violent crime and bad news are unabating. Foreign wars, natural disasters, terrorism, murders, incidents of child abuse, and medical epidemics flood our newscasts daily. Not to mention the grim wave of recent school shootings. All of this intrudes on the innocent world of children. If, as psychologists say, kids are like sponges and absorb everything that goes on around them, how profoundly does watching TV news actually affect them? How careful do parents need to be in monitoring the flow of news into the home, and how can
Do they find an approach that works?
To answer these questions, we turned to a panel of seasoned anchors, Peter Jennings, Maria Shriver, Linda Ellerbee, and Jane Pauley–each having faced the complexities of raising their own vulnerable children in a news-saturated world. Picture this: 6:30 p.m. After an exhausting day at the office, Mom is busy making dinner. She parks her 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son in front of the TV.
“Play Nintendo until dinner’s ready,” she instructs the little ones, who, instead, start flipping channels. Tom Brokaw on “NBC News Tonight” announces that an Atlanta gunman
has killed his wife, daughter, and son, all three with a hammer, before going on a shooting rampage that leaves nine dead. On “World News Tonight,” Peter Jennings reports that a jumbo jetliner with more than 300 passengers crashed in a spinning metal fireball at a Hong Kong airport. On CNN, there’s a report about the earthquake in Turkey, with 2,000 people killed. There’s a timely special on hurricanes and the terror they create in children on the Discovery channel. Hurricane Dennis has already struck; Floyd is coming. Finally, they see a local news report about a roller coaster accident at a New Jersey amusement park that kills a mother and her eight-year-old daughter.
Nintendo was never this riveting.
“Dinner’s ready!” shouts Mom, unaware that her children may be terrified by this menacing potpourri of TV news.
What’s wrong with this picture?
“There’s a LOT wrong with it, but it’s not that easily fixable,” notes Linda Ellerbee, the creator and host of “Nick News,” the award-winning news program geared for kids ages 8-13 airing on Nickelodeon. “Watching blood and gore on TV is NOT good for kids, and it doesn’t do
much to enhance the lives of adults either,” says the anchor, who strives to inform children about world events without terrorizing them. “We’re into stretching kids’ brains, and there’s nothing we wouldn’t cover,” including recent programs on euthanasia, the Kosovo crisis, prayer in schools, book-banning, the death penalty, and Sudan slaves.
But Ellerbee emphasizes the necessity of parental supervision, shielding children from unfounded fears. “During the Oklahoma City bombing, there were terrible images of children being hurt and killed,” Ellerbee recalls. “Kids wanted to know if they were safe in their beds. In studies conducted by Nickelodeon, we found out that kids find the news the most frightening thing on TV. “Whether it’s the Gulf War, the Clinton scandal, a downed jetliner, or what happened in Littleton, you have to reassure your children, over and over again.
That they’re going to be OK–that the reason this story is news is that IT rarely HAPPENS. News is the exception…nobody goes on air happily and reports how many planes landed safely! My job is to put the information into an age-appropriate context and lower anxieties. Then it’s really up to the parents to monitor what their kids watch and discuss it with them” Yet a new study of the role of media in the lives of children conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reveals that 95% of the nation’s children ages 8-18 are watching TV without their parents present.
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