Limits urged on kids' access to war

January 18, 1991|By Susan L. Rife | Susan L. Rife,Knight-Ridder News Service

WICHITA, Kan. -- Vietnam and the events of the past 30 years have inured adults to death and disaster. Now we are in another war. And our children are sitting in front of the television with us.

What will they see? How much should they watch? Will we be better than previous generations in helping children deal with the savage visions of war?

Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television in Cambridge, Mass., thinks the answers may well come from the very medium that brings the ugliness into our homes.

"We should be thinking now, and the networks should be thinking now, of organizing some of this concern into some kind of television for children. Television can help parents figure out how to talk to children about what's happening."

Children don't always have the most realistic ideas about what they'll see in TV coverage of a war in the Middle East. They form their visions of war from "Rambo" and "Top Gun" and "MASH" reruns.

Second-, third- and eighth-grade students in Wichita schools last week thought they might see missiles, blood and hand-to-hand combat on the nightly news.

"You might see some people die," said Season Micheaux, a second-grader at Adams Elementary School.

"I think I would hear shooting and hear cannons going off and see people dying," said third-grader Kevin Ryan.

"I don't want to watch it because there would be lots of blood and people dead," said classmate Meichelle Meadows.

Older students said they expect to see combat scenes from a distance.

"Probably not much hand-to-hand battle," said Philip Whitsel, an eighth-grader at Pleasant Valley Middle School. "Probably machinery."

Realistically, said Steve Haworth, director of public relations for CNN in Atlanta, viewers won't see people dying.

"Even when you think of Vietnam coverage, which was pretty close-quartered jungle combat, I cannot think of any piece of footage with soldiers in hand-to-hand combat," Haworth said. "In this setting, with weapons with hundreds of feet range, I can't imagine you're going to see hand-to-hand combat. You're going to see tanks firing, and a lot of it will be at night, we suspect. But you will also see, in all likelihood, videotape of casualties."

Haworth said unedited footage of death won't make it on the air.

"In general, we certainly think about our audience and its psyches in deciding what to put on the air. But our demographics are certainly skewed away from children. We don't make our product with children in mind," he said.

Jim Lehrer of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" on PBS said the needs of children as viewers don't come into play on coverage.

"News is news is news is news," said Lehrer. "The thing that always concerns me about kids and television is making the distinction between what is real and what is not real. This is not Rambo. Real people, kids from Newton and Winfield and Arkansas City, are going to get killed."

Lehrer said TV news organizations have a responsibility to warn viewers if the footage is particularly grim, regardless of its cause.

Nevertheless, children will be watching the news, particularly if networks pre-empt their program schedules for round-the-clock war coverage.

"We adults tend to leave the TV on from morning to night" during disaster coverage, said Charren. "Because it's on like that, children are sitting in front of it too. The adult . . . is very upset and shows it in conversation with other adults. The most serious effect is the effect on the parents, because that's what will frighten the child more than anything."

Charren said parents should limit the amount of time their children spend watching television in any case. Don't leave young children unattended in front of the television. And be prepared to talk to children about their fears, which may range from fear of their house being bombed to their parents going to war.

Caring for children is of utmost concern to Wichita child psychologist Bill Papineau. His sister is in the Army, waiting to be deployed from Virginia. Her children, 7 and 12 years old, are facing life without their parents -- their father died of a heart attack earlier this year. Should their mother be sent to war, the children will live with friends in Virginia.

"She's in a real predicament," Papineau said. And in this time of uncertainty, "The kids are really watching a lot of TV."

Papineau's own children are 22 months and 4 years old. His 4-year-old initially said he didn't know anything except that soldiers were in "Sobby Arabia." The boy added, "We don't really have to worry about that in Kansas, do we, Dad?"

Children who are obsessed with watching TV coverage of the war are another concern.

"It suggests to me that they're becoming preoccupied with it," he said. "Parents need to limit their accessibility to it."

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