There have been more than 100 mass shootings in the US since the May 24, 2022 stampede in Uvalde, Texas. Not a single week in 2022 has passed without at least four mass shootings.
With gun violence, war and other tragedies in the news, children are often exposed to scary images and information.
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Parents and caregivers are faced with the dilemma of how to talk about the unspeakable with their children. How can adults help children feel safe when there are fantasies about tragedies all over the media?
We are communication scholars who specialize in children and media. We have done a comprehensive study of children’s views and reactions to violence in the media. Research findings from ours and those of other scholars provide insight into how news can contribute to children’s fears and help children cope.
surrounded by news and information
In the age of 24-hour news coverage, it is likely that children will be exposed to disturbing news content. For some children, this exposure is intentional. Teens report that they find it important to follow current events. And more than half of teens get their news from social media and a few less get their news from YouTube.
Children under the age of 12 show little interest in news, yet many deal with it. Young children’s news exposure is almost always accidental, either through background television viewing or through family discussions of current events.
No matter how hard the parents or caregivers try to save the children, they are still likely to be exposed to the news.
News as a catalyst of fear
Several studies have examined children’s fear reactions to news. Six months after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Boston-area parents reported that children who saw more news coverage on the day of the attack were more likely to display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, have behavioral problems, and show hyperactivity and/or inattention. was more likely. compared to children watching less news.
More recently, an international survey of more than 4,000 9- to 13-year-olds from 42 countries found that more than half were frightened by news about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fear and anxiety can also arise from exposure to more common news events. In a 2012 study of elementary school children in California, nearly half of them said they saw something on the news that scared them. The news stories that were mentioned the most were natural disasters, kidnappings and thefts.
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Sadly, we live in a country where gun violence is common. A 2022 study found that children’s exposure to news coverage of mass shootings not only made them fear for their personal safety, but also correlated with a belief that their schools and society at large were dangerous.
Whether frightening or normal, reactions to fear persist. A survey of college students found that 50% of them could recall a specific news they had seen in childhood that frightened, worried, or disturbed them. Effects included feeling scared and unable to sleep. And 7% of participants said they were still afraid of that event at their current college age.
the age of the child matters
Obviously, the media can scare children and teens. But decades of research show that fear-inducing material does not affect all children equally. Young children exhibit what researchers call “perceptual dependence,” meaning they react to stimuli based on how those stimuli look, sound, or feel.
This often comes as a surprise to parents, but it helps explain why preschoolers may cry when they see movie characters like the Grinch or E.T. Which looks scary but is actually harmless compared to something that looks attractive. But really harmful.
As children grow, they develop the ability to be intimidated by intangible threats. Studies of children’s reactions to news coverage of wars show that although children of all ages are affected, younger children primarily react to the visual aspects of coverage, such as broken homes, while older children respond to abstract aspects. are more reactive to fears such as fear that conflict will spread.
how to help children cope
Just as age affects how children absorb news, age also affects what strategies are most effective in helping children cope. Non-cognitive strategies usually involve avoidance or distraction. Examples are closing the eyes, holding on to the object of attachment, leaving the room, or avoiding news altogether. These strategies work best with young children.
Cognitive strategies require the child to think of whatever is frightening them in a different way, with an adult often providing verbal explanations to help. These strategies work best with older children. For example, when dealing with depictions of fiction, a cognitive strategy that is quite effective is reminding children that what they see is “not real.”
Unfortunately, mass shootings are real. In these cases, the adult may insist that the news event is over, that it is far away, or that such events are rare. Giving a reassuring message – that the child is safe and loved – also helps.
Recommendations for the youngest children
It is important to limit exposure to news for children under the age of 7. Seeing a tragedy on the news can include graphic images and sounds. Very young children will not understand that what they are seeing is a replay of the same event and not another tragedy that happens again.
Reassure the child. Children at this age are most concerned about their personal safety. It’s important to make them feel safe, even when adults themselves are concerned, as studies show that fear is contagious.
Distraction is also helpful. Although it’s important to listen and not downplay concerns, doing something fun together that takes the child’s mind off what is happening can go a long way.
How to Help Kids in the 8-12 Range
For children between the ages of 8 and 12, it is still important to limit exposure. Of course it gets more challenging as the kids age. But making a concerted effort to shut down the news is helpful, especially if the child is sensitive.
Talk about news. If kids go online, try to go with them. Consider opening URLs to non-news portals.
Be available for conversation. Ask the children what they know. Correct any misunderstandings with facts. Listen carefully and ask what questions the children have, and then answer honestly, focusing on the basics. Reassure children that they are safe and that it is okay to be upset.
Do something to help. Consider ways to help survivors and their loved ones.
dialing in with the needs of the teen
When it comes to teens, checking in is extremely important. In all likelihood, teens learn about news events independent of their parents. But parents and caregivers should offer to speak with them to find out what they know about the condition. It also gives the adult an opportunity to listen to the underlying fears and provide insight. Again, try to address the concerns without dismissing or minimizing them.
Help teens develop news literacy. If a parent or caregiver disagrees about how a news event is portrayed in the media, they should discuss it with their child. Emphasizing that there may be misinformation, repetition, or exaggeration can help teens put tragic events into a wider perspective.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.