A parent might be forgiven for believing more is better when it comes to information. And, for a parent, that’s likely true. But, for a child, it isn’t. Specific types of non-actionable information can be harmful to children. The best example? All those stories spooned out on local networks from 6 pm to 8 pm and poured out constantly by cable news. The news doesn’t help kids. Even for elementary school-aged children capable of following the thread of a report, exposure to the news—and not just the murders, fires, and kidnappings—can lead to confusion and emotional distress. That’s because there’s a difference between “old enough” to understand and old enough to process.
To flip the nightly news script, let’s open with the good news. The younger a kid is, the less likely they are to understand more abstract concepts that tend to be more frightening to adults. Kids don’t really grasp death until around seven or eight years old, so, until then, murder and accidental deaths in car accidents aren’t terribly frightening. That doesn’t give parents a free pass to watch Forensic Files with their kids, but it does mean that leaving the news on is unlikely to bother a toddler—even a very high functioning one.
But that also means (bad news alert) that the chance of a child being frightened by the news actually increases as they get older.
“The younger child is not really differentiating between cartoons and real-life,” says Dr. Joanne Cantor, Professor Emeritus of Communication Science at the University of Wisconsin. “So the news begins to grow in its ability to frighten children as they begin to get into the elementary school years.”
Cantor acknowledges this isn’t intuitive for parents who may think children are gaining the capacity to cope with news as they get older. They do, eventually, but it relies on their ability to process what they’re seeing, which doesn’t become sophisticated until they’re well into their teens. That’s when kids develop the ability to understand and fear abstract concepts like invisible viruses that can spread and make people sick, or threats from foreign adversaries that hinge on geopolitical machinations. It’s also when they’re able to better analyze the chances their own lives might be affected.
Up until that point, parents are on the hook for communicating assurance to a kid who’s seen something on the TV that they feel is a true and present danger. Cantor explains they can accomplish that when they, “give them the calm, unequivocal, limited truth.” That means providing children with just enough information while softening some of the more frightening aspects. So non-threatening terminology like “high water” or “big winds” can be used in lieu of floods and hurricanes. Liberal use of the phrase, “I will keep you safe” is also encouraged.
But good luck convincing kids the house isn’t going to blow away. Weather, it turns out, is the subject of the stories that really get to kids and shake them.
“Surprisingly, for younger kids, weather stories are the scariest of any kind of news story,” explains Cantor. “Seeing is believing and there’s nothing scarier than watching a home get washed away in a flood. That’s to the core of their safety. It doesn’t take much cognitive development to understand what that is.”
And it’s not as if parents can soothe a kid’s fear by telling them that danger isn’t nigh. Children well into second grade still lack the cognitive function to understand that the hurricane in Florida isn’t a danger to them in Oregon or that the wildfires in Los Angeles aren’t a danger to them in Boston.
If the risk of watching the news is fear, what’s the reward? That turns out to be a harder question to answer concretely because there might not be one. Cantor remembers when her own child, now grown, walked in on a morning news story about Lorena Bobbitt forcibly removing her husband’s penis. She was terrified she would have to explain what her son had just heard. Instead, the kid broke out laughing, amazed that the newscaster had used the word penis, which was an anomaly on TV at that (quaint) time. No additional discussion was needed and no harm was done, but nothing was learned either. There was a potential downside for one uncomfortable moment and no upside ever.
At the same time, if a child has questions, Cantor explains that parents need to answer them. That’s because when a parent dismisses or belittles a child’s fears, they only deepen. “That’s the worst you can do,” Cantor says.