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Debate surrounds the issue of protecting our children from the constant streaming of news that permeates our waking hours. We look at the arguments for and against and consider a way forward

Parents working in the City are prime consumers of the world’s media. It gives us a heads up on major events that directly affect our daily working life. Sifting through this mass of information is a challenge for adults but arguably even more difficult for children.

We encourage our children to be globally aware – a child at a recent interview for entrance to a London day school said to the Head: “Please ask me about what I have been reading in the newspaper because I have been made to read it everyday for a month” but is there a danger now that so much news is bad news?

A recent Channel 4 documentary – Cotton Wool Kids – focussing on parents and children who fear being snatched or murdered, featured a 4 year–old discussing, in minute detail, the story of Madeleine McCann.

Do we protect our children or do we expose them to the reality in which they are growing up in

Stories and images of missing children, war, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and mass shootings can now be broadcast into our homes, onto the web and into the newspapers within seconds.

So what do we do? Do we protect our children or do we expose them to the reality in which they are growing up – or the reality portrayed by the media?


A number of research projects into cognitive behaviour and the effects of trauma point out that children of different ages will have varying issues in interpreting media coverage of current events.

2–3 year olds cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality. They will believe that ‘In the Night Garden’ TV programme, for example, is real. Experts believe that media coverage of bad news has an impact on very young children as they do not have concepts of
context and background or the understanding of basic properties of reality that older children have.

2–3 year olds will believe that ‘In the Night Garden’ is real

They are visual sponges and will soak up information. They will also pick up on other peoples’ stress or fear. They often act out what they cannot express verbally. Mimicking what they see on screen gives them inspiration for real life play. It is therefore
often argued that the younger the child the less exposure he or she should have.

4–5 year olds are able to start to differentiate between fantasy and reality but often think that bad things will happen to them as there is no concept of local verses global. At this age, they may think that everything is happening on their doorstep. Also, they may not
understand that the repeated media coverage is a replay. They may think that each replay is a new event.

Older children can understand the finality of death but will start the thinking process of ‘what ifs’

7–12 year olds have a better understanding but may be confused by the complexity of events. They can understand the finality of death but will start the thinking process of ‘what ifs’ and relate it to concerns about their own safety and that of their family’s.

Initial research analysed by the Dart Center* on responsible media coverage of crisis events impacting children, notes that it can be more frightening for older children because they understand news stories better and make greater risk appraisals.

They also want to see a conclusion to the story – who was caught? – how will they be protected in the future?

Perhaps, for this reason, stories that don’t yet have an ending such as the Madeleine case, become a source of intrigue and concern.

Margot Sunderland*, child therapeutic counsellor, comments that the children who are probably the most disturbed by what they see or read in the news are those children who don’t have grown ups they can turn to as a reliable source of comfort, who don’t have a sense of their human rights and who don’t realise that it is ok to protest.

Research carried out in the US post September 11th and the Oklahoma Bombings* found preliminary results to show that there is a definite link between exposure to media coverage of tragedy and symptoms of post –traumatic stress disorder amongst children. However, it is unknown whether upset children seek out media coverage of the tragedy or rather have distressed parents who seek out such news to share with them.


The media has a pervasive influence over everyone’s lives. Children live in the real world too and therefore have to learn from an early age to become media literate.

Teresa Orange and Louise O’Flynn*, in their book The Media Diet For Kids, are straight up about it. Your child should be as media savvy as you seek to be. As your child grows up he “has to learn to take on his or her own media responsibility”. He must understand the role of media in his life, how to use it effectively, how to interpret its messages.

24 hour access to global news also plays a fundamental part in informing and educating children on current affairs, cultural diversity and global awareness

Children naturally show delight in the gruesome side of any bad news stories. Some may be turned off and not want to hear any more whilst others want to hear more and more – just as children want to watch frightening films or hear about the wicked witch over
and over again. It could be argued this is a natural desire as they rehearse life through fantasy and that protection from exposure fuels the intrigue even further.

It is virtually impossible to protect children from images of traumatic current events. Children will always pick up information from somewhere, whether from friends, the playground, teachers and other children’s parents.

What to do?

  • Watch or read the news with your children, if at all possible, and talk about what they are seeing.
  • You may need to explain that an event shown over and over on news footage was actually a single event on one day. Orange and O’Flynn suggest: “Help your child interpret a situation where the reality verses the fantasy distinction becomes blurred.”
  • Put news into context. Explain what is local news and what is happening elsewhere in the world.
  • Children should be encouraged to ask questions if they misunderstand something. Discussions don’t need to be forced and information can be provided on a need to know basis.
  • Reassure them that there are people who are doing all they can to find out why something happened, to catch the perpetrator, to make it safer in the future.
  • Make sure that their watching or reading does not get out of hand. Redirect attention onto other activities and set clear limits when necessary.
  • Consider providing the information from newspapers or web pages where you can screen the information first and help prepare the children.
  • If your child continues to feel frightened there are two great books: ‘Helping Children with Fear’ and ‘Teenie Weenie in a Too Big World’ by Margot Sunderland, Speechmark Publishing Ltd and available on

*Teresa Orange and Louise O’Flynn are authors of The Media Diet for Kids, Cromwell Press, 2005

*Margot Sunderland is a registered child therapeutic counsellor

*Research on Responsible Media Coverage of Crisis Events Impacting Children by Dr Jessica Hamblen Ph.D written in collaboration with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, 2003