May 26, 2015 Children and the Media
When do kids most watch television? It turns out that 6.00-9.00 pm is the most watched timeslot for Australian children aged 8-17 – right in the news and current affairs zone. This has an up-side and a downside. Most parents and teachers want their children/students to be socially aware, but watching the graphic depictions of violence, tragedy and suffering that permeate our news programs has the potential to harm children as well as inform them. For this reason it can be helpful to have a better understanding of how frightening media can affect children.
A lot of research has been conducted on this topic over the last 30 years, much of it by Joanne Cantor and colleagues. The results of her research would fill volumes, but readers may be interested in a few key findings.
The first is that children find different aspects of media depictions frightening at different ages.
Younger children are ‘concrete’ thinkers and make judgements based on the obvious characteristics of a situation. They are more afraid of media portrayals of creatures with obviously frightening characteristics such as monsters and witches, despite the low likelihood of encountering such creatures in real life. In addition, because younger children cannot yet think in abstract terms, they may think that an event seen repeatedly on television is actually a series of new events of a similar type occurring again and again, thus making repeated coverage of natural disasters particularly traumatic.
Research suggests that as children develop the capacity to empathise with others (starting around the age of 4) and to understand abstract concepts (at around ages 7-8), they start to become less afraid of creatures and situations that cannot realistically harm them (like monsters), but become more afraid in response to media portrayals of situations they can imagine resulting in personal harm to them, or their family or friends. Children are especially likely to become upset if some aspect of what they see reminds them of their own family and friends. For example, a 10 year old girl who watches coverage of a family fleeing a bushfire, with images of a primary-aged girl clutching a smouldering soft toy like one of her own, is likely to be particularly upset by what she sees.
A second finding by Cantor and various other researchers is that children of all ages are upset by subject matter that has particular themes. In particular, children are frightened by interpersonal violence; war and suffering; fires and accidents (including displays of dangers and injuries and displays of fearful people and people in danger); and distortions of natural forms.
In addition, Cantor and others have found both short and long-term effects of exposure to frightening media. The most common short-term effects are fearfulness and anxiety, which commonly result in nightmares and sleep disturbances (e.g., Owens, 1999 found that 9% of kindergarten to 4th grade children had nightmares at least once a week related to material viewed on television). At the other end of the spectrum, psychologists see cases of children whose media exposure has left them traumatised and severely anxious to the point of requiring extended hospitalisation.
Some media images create fears, phobias and anxieties that persist into and throughout adulthood, with 25-33% of adults reporting a significant current fear that is related to exposure to frightening media during childhood.
More worrying are stable changes to the way children view the world and other people. It is well documented that higher levels of media exposure are linked to the belief that the world is a dangerous and frightening place, a sense of being in danger in the real world, a greater expectation of being involved in real world violence, and a greater tendency to interpret others’ behaviours as deliberately hurtful, even when they are intended as innocent. This in turn can lead to children being more hostile and aggressive and can have negative effects on mental health and relationships.
Some tips for parents and teachers.
For older children, also move them away from the media source. Find out what specifically is upsetting them and discuss that topic, putting the event into a wider framework. It sometimes helps to let them know that adults have the situation under control and to explain that media sensationalises and reports events to the point that they seem more common than is really true. Older kids often benefit from a cuddle too, and may feel empowered by being able to take positive action such as sending one of their own toys to bushfire victims or donating in their own name to a flood appeal.
Dr Wayne Warburton is a Lecturer in developmental psychology and Deputy Director of the Children and Families Research Centre at Macquarie University.