When terror comes home via television and risks damaging your child

From terror attacks in a Peshawar school that left 148 dead to the 17-hour armed siege in Sydney, news channels often have more graphic images of violence in one news bulletin than video games and films with adult ratings. And here's what this does to children.

health and fitness Updated: Dec 21, 2014 14:38 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
television,violence,peshawar attack

Live news reporting brings everything home, from terror attacks on children in a Peshawar school that left 148 dead, to the 17-hour armed siege in Sydney, race riots in Ferguson and shrill discussions on rape and violence against women and children like Malala, who get shot and left for dead simply for having a mind of their own. If news channels were to be rated by the US Entertainment Software Rating Board that rates films and videogames, they would be Rated ‘R’ (restricted under 17) for terror, violence, gore, and/or strong language.

While there has been public discussions about providing television ratings to warn parents about violence and sex in regular programming, news shows have been largely ignored. Even parents who monitor their child’s exposure to violence and gore on the internet and in films, television shows and video games give little thought to violence in news content.

News channels often have more graphic and repetitive images of violence, maiming and death in one news bulletin than video games and films with adult ratings, and can cause children to experience stress, anxiety and fear. Chronic and persistent exposure to such violence can lead to fear, desensitisation (numbing), and in some children an increase in aggressive and violent behaviours, says the American Psychological Association (APA), which has been tracking the effect of media violence on children for more than three decades.

Children under eight have difficulty processing the difference between fantasy and reality, which may contribute to aggressive behaviour or anxiety. Look for signs that the news may have triggered fears or anxieties such as sleeplessness, fears, bedwetting, or talking about being afraid.

While scientific literature on the effect of television news on young minds is limited, there's enough evidence to show that violence in shows desensitises young minds and makes them aggressive adults. Children who view shows in which violence is very realistic, frequently repeated or unpunished, are more likely to imitate what they see as adults, especially if they have emotional, behavioural, learning or impulse-control problems, says the American Academy of Paediatrics.

The impact may be immediately evident in the child's behaviour or may surface years later. For both boys and girls, habitual early exposure to TV violence is predictive of more aggression by them later in life independent of their own initial childhood aggression, concluded a 15-year longitudinal study of 329 youth published in last year in Developmental Psychology. Some examples of shows rated as very violent were popular ones such as Starsky and Hutch, The Six Million Dollar Man and Roadrunner cartoons. Prolonged viewing, identification with aggressive same-sex TV characters, and the perceptions that TV violence is realistic was linked to higher aggression later in life, the study found.

People, both men and women, who watched a lot of television violence as children were more likely to have pushed, grabbed or shoved their spouses, to have responded to an insult by shoving a person, to have committed a moving traffic violation or been convicted of crimes. These findings held true regardless of the child's initial aggression levels, their intellectual capabilities, their social status as measured by their parents' education or occupation, their parents' aggressiveness, or the parenting style.

Psychologists say that as a culture, most of us in India are not very sensitive to what children think and feel and many adults don't consider explaining things to children. Current events, we feel, are too complicated for young minds, and assume they won't understand. They don't, which is why adults need to discuss it with them in a language they understand. This will help lower the potential negative effects of the news and help adults share their own ideas and values. It's a bad idea to wait for children to ask because they often find it difficult to express their fears and anxieties. If it's something such as the mowing down of children at a school or a terror attack, reassure them they and their loved ones are safe as random acts of violence are extremely rare.

What also works is switching channels. Limiting exposure of preschool children to violence-laden television news and shows and increasing educational programming encouraged empathy reduced aggression, compared with a group of children who were allowed to watch whatever they wanted, reported researchers last year in the journal Pediatrics.


First Published: Dec 21, 2014 13:37 IST