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Center For Advanced Technology In Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

All the News That's Fit for Kids
Helping children become "news-smart"

Author: Gloria DeGaetano

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 children.

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

Preschoolers definitely 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!

With children 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 news instead.

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 for adults.

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 together."

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.

Conduct local 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.

More advanced 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?

Gloria DeGaetano, 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)