Why Monitoring Your Child's Exposure to Media Coverage of Violence and Suffering Matters

When you walk into a dark room and turn on the light, you instantly notice that it is bright. However, if you walk into a dimly lit room and gradually turn up the dimmer switch, it becomes much harder to make a judgement about at what point the room becomes bright. This is a phenomenon in psychology called the "just noticeable difference" which is the amount something must be changed in order for a difference to be noticeable. 

The media coverage of the violence of Las Vegas, the tragedies unfolding in Puerto Rico, and other scenes of violence and suffering shown on television can act like dimmer switch for our children. At what point do they notice something is wrong and scary in the world? More importantly (and perhaps more urgently), at what point do they stop noticing that something is wrong and scary in the world? We as adults crave information about significant crisis events, often with benign intentions. We seek to become informed, we offer aid when we can, and we generally want to be a part of the human condition. I am thankful to live in an age where we can get information quickly enough to mobilize helpful causes. What we can fail to realize is the profound effect that exposure to this content can have on children who are not able to fully comprehend and process these images.

I have heard many arguments over the years as to why some people leave media coverage on when their kids are present. Here are some of those arguments and my thoughts on each of those:

“It’s just the way the world is, he/she should get used to it.”

That is what we are talking about here, getting used to it to the extent that it becomes predictable, numbing, and defeating. There is a difference between tolerating an environment and understanding one. Seeing media images of violence without feeling empowered as to how to keep themselves and their loved one’s safe can be frightening for kids. Research suggests that exposure to media violence on television can have real effects on children, such as increases in aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, bullying, fear, depression, nightmares and sleep disturbances.  Limiting exposure while a child has a chance to develop age- appropriate problem solving and coping skills can go a long way towards making them more empowered teens and adults. 

"But my kid can handle it, he/she is mature enough."

Statistics show an average American youth will witness 200,000 violent acts on television before age 18. While news coverage of violence may not show actual the acts of violence (although this appears to be changing with the videos our phones can now capture), it nonetheless sends a message to our children that the world is not a safe place.  Even the best “mature skills” will greatly outnumbered by the events and information they are exposed to. And when the content evokes powerful emotions in children, their ability to put these events in context may be compromised (e.g. a school shooting across the country may cause the child to fear for their safety in school). 

“He/She is going to hear about it from friends anyway.”

Quite possibly yes. But kids often look to other sources to confirm what they have heard from their friends and make sense of it. They can look to television or go to a trusted adult in their lives. I’ll take my chances with the latter. A news anchor will not be able to reassure your child, a television reporter will not be able to help them understand there is good in the world too. That job belongs to us as parents.

“He/She doesn’t even notice it.”

Just because the news becomes “white noise” for you and I, does not mean that your child is not paying attention to it.  It is especially important to consider this if you have a child with a disability who may be seeing information they have difficulty processing. For some children, they may have difficulty understanding the difference between real and imaginary television images, understanding that the danger is happening far away from them, or understanding that all the images are from a singular event and not repeatedly happening.

“My kids are not violent, they won’t imitate what they see”

Hopefully not. But what we are talking about here is desensitization to images of violence and suffering. What is familiar often becomes acceptable. You have an amazing opportunity right now to help your children become adults that know that violence is never acceptable, that suffering requires action.

“But the TV is all the way over there!”

Your child’s mental health is right in front of you.  

I am thankful that while growing up my parents shielded me from intensive media coverage. As a result, I grew up to be an adult that notices when the lights go on, andthe unfortunate times when the world goes dark. The only way to grow a generation that is equally passionate and motivated to make a change is to protect them from the habituation that can occur from extended viewing of violence on media outlets during childhood.

Read a book with your kids. Play a game with them. Go for a walk with them. But turn off the TV for now.

 

For more information on how to talk to your children about violence and crisis, the National Association of School Psychologists offers some great tips here.

References:

American Psychological Association. Violence & youth: psychology’s response. Volume I: summary report of the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth. 1993. 

American Academy of Family Physicians. (2016) Violence in the Media and Entertainment (Position Paper). Retrieved from http://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/violence-media.html

Donna Thiele