Limit kids' exposure to media madness

September 16, 2001|By Renee Hobbs

WELLESLEY, Mass. - The TV has been on practically nonstop for the past few days in many households around the country.

For many, it's news radio in the car, of course, Web surfing on the phrase "terrorist attack" and phone calls to family members, neighbors and colleagues.

Some even feel a nagging sense of guilt when they switch to watch a few minutes of a romantic comedy, a children's game show or a made-for-TV movie. Watching the devastation and real-life tragedies as they unfold, minute by minute, has been a nearly automatic response for many of us.

But it's important to recognize the impact that such attention to the news media can have on our children. Most parents are unaware of how often children are traumatized by shocking, violent television news stories.

Preschoolers and older children are affected by the change in routine when parents become obsessive media monitors. Seven- to 12-year-olds are especially frightened by violence and tragedy they see on the news.

Adolescents are vulnerable to media messages that depict a dangerous or evil "other," and such messages may inspire attitudes of hate and revenge.

And children's fear is expressed in an alarming array of side effects, including withdrawal, nightmares, stomach troubles, aggression, difficulty in paying attention, changes in social behavior and aversions to common situations such as riding in a subway or getting on a bus.

Nonstop attention to the media madness can have effects on adults as well, including increased heart rate, feelings of anxiety or hopelessness. Here are some practical strategies that can be effective for families in managing media use during a crisis of this proportion:

Limit the time spent monitoring events. Just because CNN and other media outlets are providing 24-hour coverage doesn't mean there's 24 hours of new information. Spending an hour in focused reading of the newspaper and careful watching of the news is a more effective strategy than keeping the TV on from sunrise to midnight. This approach is less likely to induce fear reactions in children.

Share your emotional responses with children. It's important that children know how the images and stories of the tragedy make you feel.

In a desensitized world where carnage and destruction are stapes of entertainment media, young people look to adult models for appropriate emotional responses. Instead of taking a walk or retiring to the bathroom to cry, talk about your feelings with your kids. Ask them about their feelings, too. See what questions they have about the future, and do your best to inspire calm and confidence.

Take action. Our children grow up in a spectator culture, where watching becomes a substitute for doing. Show children how learning about the details of a crisis can be a springboard to take meaningful action.

As a family, do something that symbolizes your family's caring for others. Write a letter of thank you to the New York City firefighters. Send a condolence letter to the family of one of the many victims listed in the newspaper. Give money to support the victims. Take your children along when you give blood. Children need to see that we don't just watch when others are in trouble - we help.

Renee Hobbs is director of the Media Literacy Project at Babson College and co-founder of Alliance for a Media Literate America.

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