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Appropriate Media Exposure for Our Children

By: Jay M. Greenfeld, Ph.D., C.Psych.,

After living in Toronto during the 2003 SARS outbreak and then reading the current trend nearly 20 years later with the emerging Wuhan coronavirus, there can be a lot of focus within the media on the impact of these viruses can have on the world. In 2020, we live in a world where we receive a lot of information and fast, thus, exposing our children to information at an accelerated rate. Moreover, our children can expose themselves to the news ticker of information without any context or understanding of the truth behind significant media stories. We have been leading an Overcoming Anxiety group at our clinic over the last number of years and many children from the groups as young as 7 will often share their fears of potential natural disasters or worldwide viruses. In the group, we often work through ways in which the children can better challenge their fears, confront them, and understand them differently to help them cope. However, access to psychological services is only one route to help our children better understand the media at an early age.

Every child has different interests and every child pays particular attention to certain events within the world, largely out of interest, but also because of what we as parents expose them to. One of my children asked me at 6 years old why the New England Patriots are always in the Super Bowl or what was bigger, World War I or II? She often asked these questions because those are topics she has been exposed to at home and what we, as parents, may be talking about more often. However, it is important to know that prior to the latter part of Grade Two, there is no immediate need to expose your children to the newsfeeds via media, especially more of the negative attention that could evoke fear for so many children. Their minds are young and VERY impressionable. Therefore, it is important as a family to decide what is appropriate and when.

Start with realizing that when they see major news events occur both locally and internationally, more often than not, their immediate response is how this will affect them, their friends, and their family. For example, if there is a hurricane in Florida, it is important to show them where Florida is on a map and living in Winnipeg they will not be impacted by that directly. However, as many of my Anxiety groups have indicated, there are fears of tornadoes because those can happen in Manitoba. Therefore, when your children begin to ask questions about certain natural disasters or wars overseas, be very clear and consistent with your responses. It is crucial to provide context for them as to where these events are happening, reassurance that the city, province, and country have very specific plans in place for all the citizens, and this is what you can do to follow that plan to stay safe.

As parents, be very careful with respect to how much of the news you watch and read because if you are reacting to something on the news and that impacts your mood, energy, and opinion, be prepared to answer questions and provide an explanation as to why you are paying attention to that information. Provide a brief explanation to your children detailing why you pay attention to certain news stories, podcasts, and feeds and always include aspects of the news that they may connect with (e.g., actors and actresses from their favourite movies, the real-life version of an Airbnb Barbie Dream House, a new planet was discovered, or information about their favourite animals in different parts of the world). If they can connect with certain storylines, they will likely better understand why you follow the news, reiterating to them the importance of attending to aspects of life outside of your home.

Our children are listening to everything we say and do, especially when conversations about the news, regardless of their age. Most recently, I had learned from my grandmother that a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others had crashed in California. My two year old son told me a week later (as he was playing with his hot wheels helicopter) that a helicopter crashed into a mountain in America and it was on fire. Our children are constantly listening, watching, and waiting to soak up information so it will be important that you access trusted child friendly sites as you slowly expose them to news feeds and information that can help inform their learning, understanding, and view of the world. Some of the more appropriate apps and sites include:
Currents4kids, News-2-You, NBC Learn, and CBC Kids News.

Decide as a family when you think it is appropriate to begin the exposure, have focused conversations providing evidence of a safety plan if concerns are present, and empower the knowledge and awareness they can gain from healthy exposure to world issues.

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