This article was originally published on Sept. 26, 2012, and has been republished here.
Following dinner, my husband and I try to watch the nightly news; sometimes it's my only daily connection to the world outside my bubble. (I suppose Facebook doesn't count.) Monday night's national news lineup had my four- and seven-year-old discussing the specifics of "What is breast cancer?", "Why don't they like Obama?", and "Do babies that die grow up or stay babies forever?" (Heartbreaking: The heightened coverage of the National Zoo's baby panda's birth only worsened the blow of its death.)
I'm torn. Does watching the news with my children provides opportunities for good discussion about important issues, or expose them to world problems that they are far to young to comprehend and handle?
Whether I present the news in my home, or they hear it from other kids on the playground, my kids will be exposed to current events, particularly those that are featured on national news. It's important to consider how little ears perceive the big topics they are exposed to, and how to handle the questions, and possible fears that may arise.
For younger children, the constant replays on the news following a natural disaster like the tsunami in Japan or a violent crime like the Virginia Tech shootings can make it seem like the event is still happening. They may not understand that the situation is over and they are watching a video of something that happened in the past.
The website kidsandmedia.org suggests limiting the volume, as in mass quantities of images the child might see about the event. Think about how many images you watched of the tsunami within the first 48 hours of its occurrence! While you may be glued to a TV when an event like this occurs, censor the TV time for your children, so they don't become overwhelmed.
Children also may come to think that the world is a dangerous place; although the movie theater shooting happened in Colorado, it could cause them to be worried about going to the movies in their own town. Discussing the news in your own words, and telling your children what you think about the news will put it in context they understand and help comfort them. If their concern leads them to fear for their own safety, try sharing some positive news about the local safety and security efforts, and remind them that incidents like this are very rare and tragic, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen in our community too.
Some violent crimes are just plain scary. Reports of murder, rape and child abduction are too much for me to handle sometimes, so why would I expose my child to that? You, the parent, have control over the remote, so if something inappropriate comes on the news, change the channel or turn off the TV. If, somehow, your child is informed of a violent crime on the news, it presents an opportunity to review the safety measures they have learned to keep them safe regarding talking or going somewhere with a stranger, opening the front door without mom or dad present, or walking around the neighborhood by themselves.
Look for news websites specifically for the 10-and-under crowd. The website TIME for Kids has relevant news articles about current topics such as the national election, Chicago teachers' strike, and baby panda death, but explains the topics on a kid-friendly level. This may be an aide to your post-nightly news discussions when the topics sometimes feel to complex even for us adults.
The best way to help your child digest the news that they've heard, be it from the news program on the TV or the kid in the cafeteria, is to talk with them. Ask your child what he/she thinks of the news, how it makes them feel, and share your own thoughts too. We may not be able to shelter our children from the news of our confusing and complicated world, but we can be there for them.