- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

A quick turn of the TV dial can catch you up on the day's events, fill you in on tomorrow's weather or get you the score of the baseball game, but if children are in the room, you may be giving them an education in subjects that would be rated R if they were fictional.

The news is very real, though. It also can be very scary, and with cable TV's 24-hour news channels and the Internet, children are exposed to more news than ever.

"I think we should let children know what is going on the world but shield them from TV," says Joanne Cantor, professor emerita of communications at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book "Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them."

"The way things are presented on TV is very visual and very emotional," she says. "The images on TV are potentially much more upsetting than in the newspaper. TV news seeks viewers. To do that, it has to be dramatic and compelling, so [producers] are going to pick a higher rate of sensational news."

Sensational or not, there is plenty of bad news these days. There also are plenty of televisions 65 percent of American children have a TV in their rooms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Those TVs are on more than ever, too. John Murray, a professor of developmental psychology at Kansas State University, has spent 30 years studying TV violence and children. He says the typical American household has a television turned on seven hours a day.

That's a lot of frightening stories, he says.

"Both the local and national news give children the sense that the world is a dangerous place," Mr. Murray says. "Children begin to think there is not much you can do. You are born, you get shot, then you die."

Jill Harte, a Herndon woman who has two daughters, ages 8 and 5, likes to keep up with the situation in Israel and other current events. She tries to get her information from Internet news sites, radio and the newspaper. She says images on television may scare her children or at least bring up questions that are difficult to answer.

"During September 11, I chose not to have the TV on," Mrs. Harte says. "The images were just too horrific. I didn't want [my daughters] to freak out."

The girls are not totally shielded from the news, though. Amalia, 8, was asking about Israel, so Mrs. Harte discussed it with her in simple terms. She also gave Amalia a children's news publication that featured appropriate news without graphic pictures.

Monitoring or avoiding TV and finding other sources for news are two ways parents can control the amount of scary imagery that gets into the house, says Dr. Miriam Bar-on, professor of pediatrics at Loyola University of Chicago and chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Public Education Committee.

"There are some age-appropriate things parents can do without totally shielding their children," Dr. Bar-on says. "To hear about some of the events in the world third-hand can be just as scary."

She advises parents to consider a child's developmental level if the TV is going to be tuned to news.

"I wouldn't let a 4-year-old watch it all," Dr. Bar-on says, "but at age 8 or 9, I would watch news with them and explain things."

Ms. Cantor agrees.

"Parents should not watch TV news if children under age 8 are in the room," she says. "Really, children don't get anything valuable from watching the news until they are about 12. They are better off learning the news from their parents or by reading news magazines aimed at children."

During and following the events of September 11, many parents got a quick education in explaining events to preschoolers, Ms. Cantor says.

"There was no need to show small children what was happening," she says, "but they wanted to know what everyone was upset about. There is a way to tell them and to reassure them they are safe by paying attention to them and answering questions."

Says Mr. Murray: "Preschoolers don't have the context in which to process events. You only need to see the twin towers fall down 22 times before you think your own house is going to collapse. They become very sad, frightened and concerned for their own lives. This is the time to talk about how really bad things happen, they are rare, and how you are not in danger."

Meanwhile, older children may not be all that interested in the news, Ms. Cantor adds.

"It is usually the parents who have the news habit," she says, adding that parents should, if possible, catch up on news in the evening rather than at the dinner hour when youngsters tend to be nearby. "But they should always be aware of what they are watching and what questions they are going to need to answer."

Ms. Cantor says older school-age children who are interested in the news might find a safer outlet by reading the paper.

"By reading, you can use your imagination," she says, "and if children have fears, talk about them with them."

What is scary?

A news story doesn't have to show planes flying into buildings to scare youngsters, Ms. Cantor says. News affecting children can be terrifying to other children. A good example of such news, she says, is the story of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old beauty queen who was found murdered in her Colorado home in 1996.

"JonBenet never should have been a national story," Ms. Cantor says, "but when a really horrific thing happens, it becomes a national story. Then kids on the East Coast are worried about something that happened on the West Coast. The pictures bring it home. I got a call from a woman on the East Coast whose daughter was traumatized, who said she never wanted to be alone in the house again after watching a story on JonBenet on the 'Today' show."

Ms. Cantor says older children are often scared by stories about violence. Younger children, however, are more disturbed by coverage of natural disasters.

In stories about violence, the actual violence is rarely caught on tape. In a natural disaster, the images are dramatically visual, such as a home being ripped apart by a hurricane or distraught victims running away. These events are easy for children to understand, and it's easy for them to fear it will happen to them next, she says.

When children do see violence on television, though, they can become desensitized, Mr. Murray says. It doesn't matter whether the violence is in a movie or on the 6 p.m. news report.

"There are three effects of viewing TV violence," he says. "Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others. They may be more fearful of the world around them, and they may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others."

In other words, if the news doesn't scare your children, perhaps they are watching too much TV of any sort.

Using bad to do good

"There is definitely more bad news today," says Rabbi Marc Gellman, co-author of "Bad Stuff in the News: A Family Guide to Handling the Headlines. "The news tends to focus on what is wrong in the world, not on what is right."

Rabbi Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman are New York-area clergymen who appear on TV talk shows as "The God Squad," a duo who talk about the lessons of religion, ethics and values in everyday life.

Rabbi Gellman and Monsignor Hartman began their new book in the wake of the Columbine High School massacres. They finished it just after September 11.

"What we are trying to say is that even with all the bad news, the situation is not helpless or hopeless," Monsignor Hartman says. "With each bad thing they are likely to see on the news, there are things to understand."

Explaining why things happen is the first step in reducing fear, Rabbi Gellman says. In understanding a school shooting, for instance, it is important to remember that fewer than 30 children were killed in schools in the United States between 1999 and 2001 and that millions of children go to schools every day and nothing bad ever happens to them.

"Part of life is accepting good risks and avoiding bad risks," the authors write in "Bad Stuff in the News." "Going to school is a good risk. Even though schools are getting safer, it's still important to understand the reasons for the killings: Those kids who did the killing had a huge bucket of pain inside of them. Inside pain comes from feeling scared and lonely, from feeling that nobody loves you or cares about what happens to you."

Knowing what children and teens can do to prevent bad things from happening is what Rabbi Gellman and Monsignor Hartman discuss in writing about "stuff you can fix." Being proactive can help young people feel they are doing their part to reduce evil in the world, Monsignor Hartman says.

For instance, if you see someone eating alone, ask him or her to have lunch once in a while, the authors say.

"It may seem small, but asking a lonely kid to join you for lunch might be just the thing to convince that person that somebody cares about him or her. If he feels less lonely, he may feel less angry. If he feels less angry, he may have less pain inside. A simple act of kindness can go a long way."

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