Trauma on TV: Should Kids Watch?

April 17, 2007 — -- As the story of the Virginia Tech shooting unfolds, people across the nation will inevitably be glued to their television screens.

But while it's tempting to keep the television on 24/7, psychology experts caution that parents may want to keep an eye on how much of the violent coverage they allow their children to watch.

Of course, in this day and age, it's almost impossible to completely shield children from talk and images of violent current events. Kids will likely hear small amounts of information from friends, other parents, teachers and the media.

But many parents may wonder exactly how much information they should allow their children to have. Experts generally agree that the amount of information children get from TV and other media should depend on a child's age and emotional development.

Minimize Young Children's Exposure

Very young children -- of preschool and early elementary school age -- are visual sponges, experts say. They soak up most of their information from what they see.

They will not understand most of what is going on but "are highly affected by images as well as by witnessing the anxiety of adults," said Lynda Madison, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Creighton University School of Medicine.

"So, allowing them to watch the news or overhear adults who are fearful or worried can be very distressing."

Parents also need to remember that young children may lack the complex thinking skills needed to understand the situation.

"They do not comprehend the permanence of death, and, if they see repeated photos of any disaster, they will think it is happening all over again," explained Dr. Karen Olness, professor of pediatrics, family medicine and global health at Case Western Reserve University.

"It is a good idea not to let them see repeated footage from this disaster or from any disaster."

Jay Reeve, assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University, agrees. "I would discourage having a lot of graphic visuals from TV or the Internet. There's really no particular reason for them to be exposed to scenes of graphic violence."

Monitor Older Children's Exposure

Older children -- those in later elementary and middle school -- will have a better understanding of what is going on, but they may still be confused by the complexity of events and will likely have many questions.

Children in this age group "are more aware of the finality of death and can generate more 'what ifs,' so they are more likely to experience concern about their and their family's safety," said Madison.

"They may need to have some very basic closure to the situation: who was caught, what schools are doing to protect children and what will be done differently in the future."

Olness said that children at this age need concrete information on what is being done in the aftermath -- what kind of security measures are being taken and what kind of rules are being put into place. These questions, she said, should be answered.

Judith Myers-Walls, associate professor and extension specialist in child development and family studies at Purdue University, said that "It might be helpful for [children] to get some information from newspapers or Web pages where parents or teachers could screen the information first and help to prepare the children."

Reeve agrees. "I would monitor the TV and Internet output, but not necessarily censor it."

Open Communication Key

Psychology experts emphasize that parents should also remember to watch, listen to and talk to their children, regardless of their age.

"It is important for parents to be sensitive to their children's questions, comments and behaviors, offer support and guidance, and respond to changes or concerns as they arise," said Madison.

"Also important is reassurance that responsible adults, law enforcement and college officials are doing all they can to find out why such a terrible thing happened, and to make sure they can protect students in colleges from any further danger," said Rona Novick, associate professor of psychology at Yeshiva University in New York.

"Parents should take the opportunity to remind young children of all the things that are in our control to be safe -- all the things parents and children do to stay safe -- such as holding hands when crossing streets."

However, parents should be careful not to force discussion of issues that their child is not interested in talking about, cautioned John Sandoval, professor of psychology at the University of the Pacific in California.

"It is possible to ask a child if he or she has any questions after jointly watching something on TV," Sandoval said. "If nothing else, parents can legitimize feelings of concern or distress.

"Children will want to feel safe and should get realistic reassurance about the fact that their parents and teachers are looking out for them."

For additional information on providing bereavement support in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, suggests the Center's recently completed guidelines. These guidelines and other resources can be found at the Center's website.