For children, news can be a frightening thing, and with cable TV's 24-hour channels and the Internet, they are exposed to more of it than ever before. "I think we should let children know what is going on in the world but shield them from TV," says Joanne Cantor, professor emerita of communications at the University of Wisconsin.
Images on television can be much more upsetting than in the newspaper, says Cantor, author of Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them. "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 one in their rooms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Those televisions 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.
"Both the local and national news give children the sense that the world is a dangerous place," Murray says. "Children begin to think there is not much you can do. You are born, you get shot, then you die."
On the other hand, children who view crime-related violence on television can become desensitized. 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," says Murray. "Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others. They may be more fearful of the world around them. Or they may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others."
Monitoring or avoiding televisions and finding other sources for news are two ways parents can control the amount of scary imagery that gets into the house, says Miriam Baron, professor of pediatrics at Loyola University of Chicago. "There are some age-appropriate things parents can do without totally shielding their children," says Baron, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Public Education Committee. "To hear about some of the events in the world thirdhand can be just as scary." She advises parents to consider a child's developmental level if the television is going to be tuned to news. "I wouldn't let a 4-year-old watch it all," she says, "but at age 8 or 9, I would watch news with them and explain things."
Cantor agrees. "Really, children don't get anything valuable from watching the news until they are about 12," she says. "They are better off learning the news from their parents or by reading news magazines aimed at children. …