There have been more than 100 mass shootings in the US since the rampage in Uvalde, Texas on May 24, 2022. Not a single week in 2022 has gone by without at least four mass shootings.
With gun violence, war, and other tragedies in the news, children are often exposed to frightening images and information.
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Parents and caregivers are faced with the dilemma of how to talk to their children about the unspeakable. How can adults help children feel safe when images of tragedy abound in the media?
We are communication scholars specializing in children and media. We have extensively studied children’s views and responses to violence in the media. Findings from our research and those of other scholars offer insights into how the news can contribute to children’s fears and how to help children cope with them.
Surrounded by news and information.
In an age of 24-hour news coverage, children are likely to encounter disturbing news content. For some children, this exposure is deliberate. Teens report that it is important for them to follow current events. And more than half of teens get their news from social media and slightly fewer get their news from YouTube.
Children under the age of 12 show little interest in the news, but many still find it. Young children’s exposure to the news is almost always accidental, whether through the television in the background or through family conversations about current events.
No matter how hard parents or caregivers try to protect children, they are likely to find their way into the news.
The news as a catalyst for fear
Several studies have examined children’s fear responses to the news. Six months after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Boston-area parents reported that children who watched more news coverage on the day of the attack were more likely to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, have behavior and display hyperactivity and/or inattention. than children who watched less news.
More recently, an international survey of more than 4,000 children aged 9 to 13 from 42 countries found that more than half of children were scared by news about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fear and anxiety can also be stimulated by exposure to news that is more common. In a 2012 study of elementary school children in California, almost half of them said they saw something in the news that scared them. The most frequently mentioned news items were natural disasters, kidnappings and burglaries.
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Unfortunately, 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 caused them to fear for their personal safety, but correlated with a belief that their school and society in general were dangerous.
Whether catastrophic or common, fear reactions endure. A survey of college students found that 50% of them could recall a specific news item they had seen during childhood that scared, worried or upset them. Effects included feeling scared and not being able 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
Clearly, the media can scare children and adolescents. But decades of research show that fear-provoking content does not affect all children in the same way. Young children demonstrate what researchers call “perceptual dependence,” meaning they react to stimuli in terms of 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 ET. but it is really harmful.
As children mature, they develop the ability to be frightened by abstract threats. Studies of children’s reactions to news coverage of wars show that although children of all ages are affected, younger children respond primarily to the visual aspects of the coverage, such as destroyed houses, while older children respond more to abstract aspects, such as fear that the conflict will spread
How to help children cope
Just as age affects how children take in news, age also influences what strategies are most effective in helping children cope. Noncognitive strategies often involve avoidance or distraction. Closing your eyes, clinging to an object of attachment, walking out of the room, or avoiding the news altogether are examples. These strategies work best with younger children.
Cognitive strategies require the child to think about whatever scares them in a different way, and an adult often provides a verbal explanation to help. These strategies work best with older children. When it comes to fantasy representations, for example, one cognitive strategy that is quite effective is to remind children that what they see is “not real.”
Unfortunately, mass shootings are real. In these cases, the adult can emphasize that the news is over, that it was far away, or that these events are rare. Providing a reassuring message that the child is safe and loved also helps.
Recommendations for the little ones
For children under the age of 7, limiting exposure to the news is critical. Seeing a tragedy in the news can include graphic images and sounds. Very young children will not understand that what they see are repetitions of the same event and not another tragedy that happens again.
Calm the child. Children at this age are more concerned about their personal safety. It’s important to make them feel safe, even when the adults themselves are worried, as studies show that fear is contagious.
Distraction is also helpful. Although it is important to listen and not dismiss concerns, doing something fun together that distracts the child from what is happening can be very helpful.
How to help children in the range of 8-12
For children between the ages of 8 and 12, it is still important to limit exposure. Admittedly, this is more challenging as children get older. But it’s helpful to make a concerted effort to turn off the news, especially if the child is sensitive.
Talk about news. If the kids go online, try going with them. Consider setting URLs to open to non-news portals.
Be available to chat. Ask the children what they know. Correct any misconceptions with facts. Listen carefully and ask what questions the children have, and then answer honestly with a focus on the basics. Reassure children that they are safe and that it is okay to feel upset.
Do something to help. Consider ways to help survivors and their loved ones.
Dialing in with the needs of teens
When it comes to teens, it’s extremely important to be aware. In all likelihood, teenagers learn the news independently of their parents. But parents and caregivers should offer to talk to them to get a sense of what they know about the situation. This also gives the adult a chance to listen to underlying fears and offer insights. Again, she tries to address the concerns without dismissing or minimizing them.
Help teens develop news literacy. If parents or caregivers disagree with the way a news event is portrayed in the media, they should discuss it with their child. Emphasizing that there may be misinformation, repetition, or exaggeration may help teens put tragic events into a larger perspective.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.