All the News That's
Fit for Kids
Helping children become "news-smart"
News and news-related
programs make up a bigger part of the TV landscape than ever before.
One recent survey determined that these programs account for 30 pecent
of broadcast network time. The number of hours devoted to news grows
even larger when cable is factored in. For parents, this is literally
a good news-bad news situation. On one hand, cable television offers
an enormous diversity of current-events programs to helps us all be
informed, responsible citizens. On the other hand, it is more important
than ever to know what kind of news programming is appropriate for your
Messages and stories
absorbed at an early age have the biggest impact on children, who often
don't understand that news programs offer a very narrow view of the
world. Much of what is covered on television news involves the most
negative aspects of human behavior. If programs that send skewed and
harmful messages about how people behave are a child's first cultural
impressions, then the child will most likely compare all future accounts,
no matter how realistic, to these inaccurate ones. Kids can also become
fearful when information is presented out of context. "After the television
coverage of the bombing of Baghdad a few years ago," says Harvard University
child psychologist Dr. Robert B. Brooks, "children in this country worried
that their homes would be bombed in retaliation."
In addition, children
usually have difficulty distinguishing fact from opinion--especially
when bias is contained in an anchor's tone of voice, facial expression,
or word choice. Children and teens are also attracted to the hype and
glitz that drive today's news shows. Yet if they are exposed to too
much sensationalism, they may come to believe that hype must be present
for information to be important.
Here are some
steps parents can take to encourage children to think about what they
see. Limiting viewing to age-appropriate programming and discusssing
a program with your children can help ensure they perceive news accurately
and respond appropriately.
Ages 3 through
5: No News is Good News
are not ready to watch TV news or talk shows. There is no news program
written for the three- to five-year-old set. And there shouldn't be.
It is normal for children at this stage of development to be involved
in their own environments.
It is a mistake
to even have the evening news or a talk show on when preschoolers are
around. For the young child, images are alive -- they have power. Psychologists
often use screen images to change toddlers' behavior, such as curing
a fear of dogs by having them watch films of a child playing happily
with a dog. An interesting example illustrates the point: Psychologist
Robert O'Connor selected the most severely socially withdrawn children
from four preschools and showed them a film depicting a solitary child
observing other children playing and then happily joining them. His
findings are reported by Arthur Deikman in his book The Wrong Way Home:
"After watching the film, the children immediately began to interact
with their peers...After six weeks...they were leading their schools
in amount of social activity. It seems that a 23-minute movie, viewed
just once, was enough to reverse a potential pattern of lifelong mal-adaptive
behavior." If watching only twenty-three minutes can make this kind
of impact, imagine the effects on the preschooler of repeated exposure
to news about violence!
this age, parents might consider: watching a later news program when
the child is asleep; watching the news while your spouse or an older
child plays with the youngster in another room; or listening to radio
Ages 6 through
10: Be Selective
Viewing news programs--ones
without violent images--that are designed especially for children this
age, may encourage children to begin thinking about the role of curent
events intheir lives. But, as with preschoolers, there is no overwhelming
reason they should regularly watching TV news or talk shows produced
The world of adult
TV news is too unknown and frightening a place for elementary school
children. However, there are news shows designed specifically for children
of this age, such as Linda Ellerbee's Nick News.
Parents can watch
along with their children, discussing important points. Taking the time
to find these shows and making them part of your child's regular viewing
is well worth the effort. One parent, Inga, talks about watching Nick
News with her daughter, Laura."To my surprise, I found myself really
interested in the subjects they were covering and in the professional
manner in which the kids were performing. The pacing seemed about right.
Laura was pleased that I liked the same program she did; we had a good
(and lengthy, for us) discussion about one of the stories we had watched
Ages 11 through
14: Learn to Think Critically
By age 11 or 12,
most kids will have developed the necessary language and thinking skills
to analyze news programs designed for their age group. Many teachers
use CNN Newsroom/WorldView to engage middle-school students in discussions
about current events. Families can tape it and watch it at home, too,
or kids can watch other news programs designed specifically for them.
Most talk shows
appeal to early adolescents. While I don't advocate that children in
this age group watch a lot of talk shows, it is realistic to think that
they will probably see them. As parents, we can steer young teens away
from the polarized treatment of sensational topics to more in-depth
thought and analysis. If kids think they are old enough to watch these
types of shows, then they are old enough to critique them and talk about
them, too. There are ways to encourage junior high kids to think more
critically about talk shows and news programs:
Seek out alternative
sources of information. If your young teen has watched a news or talk
show about teen pregnancy, for example, have him or her research the
facts given on the show. Your child may discover that a lot of important
information is left out of the television coverage.
interviews. Have your child conduct interviews of adult family members,
relatives, or neighbors to find out what other adults think of a topic
presented on a talk show. Usually personal experiences put the sensational
talk-show spin in its place.
Write down reactions
and what was learned. Have your children write down their feelings and
two or three sentences summarizing what was learned. This allows you
to monitor any distortions your children may have picked up and also
provides a springboard for further conversation. It's a chance to set
the story straight.
Ages 15 and
Up: Talk About It
High school kids
should be talking, and thinking, about news programs and news magazines.
This can be a great starting point for discussing sensitive topics with
teenagers, providing an opportunity to expose teens to a broader view.
For instance, if they're talking about a news report on starvation in
Africa, your teens might think wearing the latest fashions is not seem
so vitally important by comparison.
questioning of the screen information is essential for this age group.
Here are examples of questions you can ask:
- Is this news
story important enough to take up two minutes of 40 million people's
time? Why or why not?
- Will watching
sensational reporting of weird behavior inspire copycat behavior?
- How can you
tell facts from opinions? Are facts and opinions easier to spot on
TV or in the newspaper?
- Did you learn
everything you needed to know about the subject from this show or
story? What was missing? What could have been cut?
M. Ed., author of Screen Smarts: A Family Guide to Media Literacy, conducts
workshops for parents and teachers on issues related to children and visual
media. You can receive more information by visiting her website: GrowSmartBrains
This article was
reprinted courtesy Better Viewing Magazine, March/April, 1998. Parents
can subscribe to Better Viewing with a credit card by calling 1-800-216-2225
(Six issues per year, $9.97)