Are Children Getting Their News At Too Early An Age?
Not all news is good news
Written by Linda L. Esterson
Photography by Justin Tsucalas
One day recently, 9-year-old Chloe Buergenthal asked her mother if they were going to lose their house. She had learned about the country’s failing economy and mortgage foreclosures from radio news reports and television newscasts, and had heard others discussing it.
Randi Buergenthal assured her daughter that they weren’t going to lose their home, but told her some people are facing this problem because of the economy.
Chloe and her sister, Eliza, 12, have also inquired about their father, John, losing clients when they heard about people losing their jobs.
Again, their mother assured them that everything was fine with their father’s job.
Similarly, Adam and Zach Lubliner get their news from ESPN, as they turn on the all-sports station to hear the scores of the games featuring their favorite teams. They get a lot more, of course, when they hear about the infamous Michael Phelps’ photograph, Alex Rodriguez’s steroid admission and the travesty of NFL greats like Donte Stallworth killing a pedestrian with his Bentley.
“They turn it on to get the scores,” says their mother, Debbie. “There are so many other stories about athletes they find out about. You would think there’s no more benign thing to watch (than ESPN).”
Like most kids growing up in today’s media-based society, the Buergenthals and Lubliners get their news from a variety of sources. Radio, television and word of mouth have been the main sources for the last few generations. Today’s children, however, have another source providing unlimited access to news — the Internet.
When he logs on to the family computer, Adam, 11, sees the http://www.MSN.com home page. There, he reads the headlines teasing the national news stories of the day, often involving sports heroes and celebrities.
Such news of the rich and famous used to be kept from the public, but today, with the international exposure of the Internet, nothing is sacred. And what’s worse, our children are learning more and more about the bad and the ugly, as opposed to the good.
Richard Vatz, Ph.D., professor of political communications at Towson University, calls the prevalence of information available through the Internet the “access explosion.” Google allows access to celebrity scandals, marijuana and drug use, and general news. The inclusion of these behaviors in movies and on television, as well, Vatz says, normalizes these behaviors in the eyes of children, who can identify with the characters played by celebrities.
After displaying poor behavior, the celebrities are rewarded with publicity through magazines like People featuring a “bad-gone-good” story because it sensationalizes their situations. Often their punishments are little, if any.
“It’s a tremendous detriment to kids becoming responsible,” says Vatz. “Normal celebrities aren’t covered because they haven’t done anything horrible. It doesn’t sell magazines.”
Britney Spears is one featured in nearly every magazine and on pop-ups all over the Internet. Children see the stories about her and see an irresponsible person who did not lose her fame or fortune. The message is, Vatz says, that however badly they behave, there is little consequence. “The access explosion is not communicating to young people that bad behavior has bad consequences.”
“Parents are the key to fighting back,” Vatz says.
“That goes without saying,” adds Joseph Kaine, Ph.D., child psychologist with Psychological Consultants Associated in Lutherville. “Appropriate oversight is certainly warranted.”
So just how do you counter the effects of your children’s overexposure to the news, when you can’t keep them from hearing or viewing it?
Parents need to first monitor the Internet sites their kids visit, Kaine says. Sit with them when they go on sites, even http://www.Disney.com or http://www.Nickelodeon.com “Show interest in what they’re doing, see what they’re doing, and participate with them. It gives you the opportunity to see what might pop up.”
Once a puzzling pop-up or a disturbing story comes on the screen, it’s the perfect opportunity for a dialogue between parent and child.
“View it as a positive,” says Kaine. “It gives parents a great chance for education and teaching.”
Among the topics related to the news that are perfect for discussion are safety issues, developing empathy for others and family values. Parents can throw out open-ended questions. When they show a pop-up about Britney Spears’ carousing or Alex Rodriguez’s steroid admission, ask your child what he thinks about that?
“Sometimes the misperception is that this is the norm,” says Kaine. “Britney isn’t the norm. Thousands of Hollywood people live fine lives. There are 102 names in the Mitchell Report (implicating professional baseball players who took steroids), but 600 players play at a time and there are thousands who have played over the years. It’s not the norm.”
It’s also a chance to explain that all people make mistakes, even celebrities and sports figures. Most NFL players are good, responsible citizens, but there are exceptions, those who make mistakes, and unfortunately they are the ones who get the news coverage.
Let your children know they can always ask specific questions and provide honest, brief answers. Leave the door open for future talks about the same topic and others.
The recent news and Internet coverage of Jessica Simpson’s slight weight gain is another great teachable moment. Ask the child if she thinks there would be stories about her losing weight? What’s really important here? She’s a good singer and should be judged by what’s in her heart — kindness, respect, courtesy — and not what she weighs.
“Empathy is a big thing to develop in youngsters. What is she thinking and feeling when she hears this?” Kaine asks. “Everybody’s weight goes up and down. Put the kids in the shoes of other people so they understand.”
“As we all know, messages are filtered,” says Buergenthal. “It is incumbent upon us as parents that our children understand all sides of a story or issue.
“It’s important to be honest with our kids and not shelter them, but put things into perspective.” She also suggests that parents make sure kids get their information from valid, reliable sources.
Buergenthal explains to her children that news reports are often blown out of proportion.
“That’s not how you and I live, or our friends live, or how people in our community live,” she explains to them.
Teaching them to make the right choices will hopefully put them on the right road — not the one taken by celebrities they hear about on television or online.