KIDS AND THE NEWS
More than ever, children witness innumerable, sometimes traumatizing, news events on TV. It seems that violent crime and bad news is unabating. Foreign wars, natural disasters, terrorism, murders, incidents of child abuse, and medical epidemics flood our newscasts daily. Not to mention the grim wave of recent school shootings.
All of this intrudes on the innocent world of children. If, as psychologists say, kids are like sponges and absorb everything that goes on around them, how profoundly does watching TV news actually affect them? How careful do parents need to be in monitoring the flow of news into the home, and how can they find an approach that works?
To answer these questions, we turned to a panel of seasoned anchors, Peter Jennings, Maria Shriver, Linda Ellerbee, and Jane Pauley--each having faced the complexities of raising their own vulnerable children in a news-saturated world.
Picture this: 6:30 p.m. After an exhausting day at the office, Mom is busy making dinner. She parks her 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son in front of the TV.
"Play Nintendo until dinner's ready," she instructs the little ones, who, instead, start flipping channels.
Tom Brokaw on "NBC News Tonight," announces that an Atlanta gunman has killed his wife, daughter and son, all three with a hammer, before going on a shooting rampage that leaves nine dead.
On "World News Tonight," Peter Jennings reports that a jumbo jetliner with more than 300 passengers crashed in a spinning metal fireball at a Hong Kong airport.
On CNN, there's a report about the earthquake in Turkey, with 2,000 people killed.
On the Discovery channel, there's a timely special on hurricanes and the terror they create in children. Hurricane Dennis has already struck, Floyd is coming.
Finally, they see a local news report about a roller coaster accident at a New Jersey amusement park that kills a mother and her eight-year-old daughter.
Nintendo was never this riveting.
"Dinner's ready!" shouts Mom, unaware that her children may be terrified by this menacing potpourri of TV news.
What's wrong with this picture?
"There's a LOT wrong with it, but it's not that easily fixable," notes Linda Ellerbee, the creator and host of "Nick News," the award-winning news program geared for kids ages 8-13, airing on Nickelodeon.
"Watching blood and gore on TV is NOT good for kids and it doesn't do much to enhance the lives of adults either," says the anchor, who strives to inform children about world events without terrorizing them. "We're into stretching kids' brains and there's nothing we wouldn't cover," including recent programs on euthanasia, the Kosovo crisis, prayer in schools, book- banning, the death penalty, and Sudan slaves.
But Ellerbee emphasizes the necessity of parental supervision, shielding children from unfounded fears. "During the Oklahoma City bombing, there were terrible images of children being hurt and killed," Ellerbee recalls. "Kids wanted to know if they were safe in their beds. In studies conducted by Nickelodeon, we found out that kids find the news the most frightening thing on TV.
"Whether it's the Gulf War, the Clinton scandal, a downed jetliner, or what happened in Littleton, you have to reassure your children, over and over again, that they're going to be OK--that the reason this story is news is that IT ALMOST NEVER HAPPENS. News is the exception...nobody goes on the air happily and reports how many planes landed safely!
"My job is to put the information into an age-appropriate context and lower anxieties. Then it's really up to the parents to monitor what their kids watch and discuss it with them"
Yet a new study of the role of media in the lives of children conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reveals that 95% of the nation's children ages 8-18 are watching TV without their parents present.
How does Ellerbee view the typical scenario of the harried mother above?
"Mom's taking a beating here. Where's Dad?" Ellerbee asks.Perhaps at work, or living separately from Mom, or absent altogether.
"Right. Most Moms and Dads are working as hard as they can because we live in a society where one income just doesn't cut it anymore,"
NBC News correspondent Maria Shriver, the mother of four--Katherine, 13, Christina, 12, Patrick, 10, and Christopher, 6--agrees with Ellerbee: "But Moms aren't using the TV as a babysitter because they're out getting manicures!" says the 48-year-old anchor.
"Those mothers are struggling to make ends meet and they do it because they need help. I don't think kids would be watching [as much TV] if their parents were home organizing a touch football game.
"When I need the TV as a babysitter," says Shriver, who leaves detailed TV- viewing instructions behind when traveling, "I put on a safe video. I don't mind that my kids have watched "Pretty Woman" or "My Best Friend's Wedding" 3,000 times. I'd be more fearful if they watched an hour of local news.That would scare them. They might feel: 'Oh, my God, is somebody going to come in and shoot me in my bedroom?'"
In a move to supervise her own children more closely since her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, became Governor, Shriver scaled back her workload as Contributing Anchor to Dateline NBC and set up her office at home: "You can never be vigilant enough with your kids," she says, "because watching violence on TV clearly has a huge impact on children--whether it's TV news, movies, or cartoons."
This view is shared by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which states: ""TV is a powerful influence in developing value systems and shaping behavior...studies find that children may become immune to the horror of violence; gradually accept violence as a way to solve problems; and resort to anti-social and aggressive behavior, imitating the violence they observe."
Although there are no rules about watching TV in 49% of the nation's households, TV-watching at the Schwarzenegger home is almost totally verboten:
"We have a blanket rule that my kids do not watch any TV at all during the week," she notes, "and having a TV in their bedrooms has never been an option. I have enough trouble getting them to do their homework!" she states with a laugh. "Plus the half hour of reading they have to do every night.
According to the Kaiser survey, Shriver's household is a glaring exception to the rule. "Many kids have their own TV's, VCR's and video games in their bedroom," the study notes. Moreover, children ages 8-18 actually spend an average of three hours and 16 minutes watching TV daily; only 44 minutes reading; 31 minutes using the computer; 27 minutes playing video games; and a mere 13 minutes using the Internet.
"My kids," Shriver explains, "get home at 4 p.m., have a 20-minute break, then go right into homework or after-school sports. Then, I'm a big believer in having family dinner time. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting at the dinner table and listening to my parents, four brothers, and my grandmother, Rose. We didn't watch the news.
"After dinner nowadays, we play a game, then my kids are in bed, reading their books. There's no time in that day for any TV, except on weekends, when they're allowed to watch a Disney video, Sesame Street, Barney, The Brady Bunch, or Pokemon."
Beyond safe entertainment, Shriver has eliminated entirely the option of her children watching news events unfolding live on TV: "My kids," she notes, "do not watch any TV news, other than Nick News," instead providing her children with Time for Kids, [Teen Newsweek is also available], Highlights, and newspaper clippings discussed over dinner.
"No subject should be off-limits," Shriver concludes, "but you must filter the news to your kids."
ABC's Peter Jennings, who reigns over "World News Tonight," the nation's most-watched evening newscast, emphatically disagrees with a censored approach to news-watching: "I have two kids--Elizabeth is now 24 and Christopher is 21-- and they were allowed to watch as much TV news and information anytime they wanted," says the anchor. A firm believer in kids understanding the world around them, he adapted his bestselling book, The Century, for children ages 10 and older in The Century for Young People.
No downside to kids watching news? "I don't know of any downside and I've thought about it many times. I used to worry about my kids' exposure to violence and overt sex in the movies. Like most parents, I found that although they were exposed to violence sooner than I would have liked, I don't feel they've been affected by it. The jury's still out on the sex.
"I have exposed my kids to the violence of the world--to the bestiality of man--from the very beginning, at age 6 or 7. I didn't try to hide it. I never worried about putting a curtain between them and reality, because I never felt my children would be damaged by being exposed to violence IF they understood the context in which it occurred. I would talk to my kids about the vulnerability of children in wartime--the fact that they are innocent pawns-- and about what we could do as a family to make the world a more peaceful place.
Jennings firmly believes that coddling children is a mistake: "I've never talked down to my children, or to children period. I always talk UP to them and my newscast is appropriate for children of any age."
Yet the 65-year-old anchor often gets letters from irate parents: "They'll say: 'How dare you put that on at 6:30 when my children are watching?' My answer is: 'Madam, that's not my problem. That's YOUR problem. It's absolutely up to the parent to monitor the flow of news into the home."
Part of directing this flow is turning it off altogether at meal-time, says Jennings, who believes family dinners are sacrosanct. He is appalled that the TV is turned on during meals in 58% of the nation's households, this according to the Kaiser study.
"Watching TV during dinner is unforgivable," he exclaims, explaining that he always insisted that his family wait until he arrived home from anchoring the news. "You're darn right they waited...even when my kids were tiny, they never ate until 7:30 or 8 pm. Then we would sit with no music, no TV. Why waste such a golden opportunity? Watching TV at mealtime robs the family of the essence of the dinner, which is communion and exchange of ideas. I mean, God, if the dinner table is anything, it's a place to learn manners and appreciation for two of the greatest things in life--food and drink."
Jennings is likewise unequivocal in his view of junk TV and believes parking kids at the tube creates dull minds: "I think using TV as a babysitter is a terrible idea because the damn television is very narcotic, drug-like. Mindless TV makes for passive human beings--and it's a distraction from homework!
"My two children were allowed to watch only a half an hour of entertainment TV per night--and they never had TV's in their bedrooms.It's a conscious choice I made as a parent not to tempt them...too seductive..."
Adds Ellerbee: "TV is seductive and is meant to be. The hard, clear fact is that when kids are watching TV, they're not doing anything else!"
Indeed, according to the National Institute on Out-of-School Time and the Office of Research Education Consumer Guide, TV plays a bigger role in children's lives now than ever before. Kids watch TV an average of14 to 22 hours per week, which accounts for at least 25 percent of their free time.
"Dateline NBC" Anchor Jane Pauley, intensely private, declined an interview to discuss how she and her husband, cartoonist Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury") handle TV-watching with their three teens, two of whom are fraternal twins. But in a written response, she agreed that kids need to be better protected from the onslaught of violence: "I was a visitor at a public elementary school not long ago, and was invited to peek in on a fourth-grade class on 'current events.' The assignment had been to watch the news and write about one of the stories. Two kids picked the fatal attack on a child by a pit bull and the other wrote about a child who'd hanged herself with a belt! They'd all watched the worst blood and gore 'News at 11' station in town. The teacher gave no hint that she was as appalled as I was. My response was to help the school get subscriptions to "Time for Kids" and "My Weekly Reader." People need to be better news consumers. And tabloid TV is very unhealthy for kids."
On this point, Ellerbee readily agrees:"I really do believe the first amendment STOPS at your front door. You are the boss at home and parents have every right to monitor what their kids watch. What's even better is watching with them and initiating conversations about what they see.If your child is watching something terribly violent, sit down and DEFUSE it. Talking makes the ghosts run...and kids can break through their scared feelings."
"Kids," she maintains, "know about bad news--they're the ones trying to spare us the bad news sometimes. But kids should be able to see that their parents are both human enough to be deeply affected by a tragedy like Columbine, but also sturdy enough to get through it...and on with life. That is the underpinning of their security."
"I'm no expert on the nation's children," adds Jennings, " but I'd have to say no, it wasn't traumatic. Troubling, shocking, even devastating to some, confusing to others, but traumatizing in that great sense, no.
"Would I explain to my kids that there are young, upset, angry, depressed kids in the world? Yes. I hear the most horrendous stories about what's going on in high schools from my kids. And because of the shootings, parents are now on edge--pressuring educators to 'do something.' They have to be reminded that the vast majority of all schools in America are overwhelmingly safe," a fact borne out by The National School Safety Center, which reports that in l998 there were just 25 violent deaths in schools compared to an average of 50 in the early 90's.
Ellerbee adds that a parent's ability to listen is more important than lobbying school principals for more metal detectors and armed guards: "If there was ever a case where grown-ups weren't listening to kids, it was Littleton. First, don't interrupt your child...let them get the whole thought out. Next, if you sit silently for a couple of seconds after they're finished, they'll start talking again, getting to a second level of honesty. Third, try to be honest with your kid. To very small children, it's proper to say: 'This is never going to happen to you...' But you don't say that to a 10-year-old."
Moreover, Ellerbee believes that media literacy begins the day parents stop pretending that if you ignore TV, it will go away. "Let your kid know from the very beginning that he or she is SMARTER than TV: 'I am in control of this box, it is not in control of me. I will use this box as a useful, powerful TOOL, but will not be used by it.' Kids know the difference.
"Watching TV," Ellerbee maintains, "can makes kids more civilized. I grew up in the south of Texas in a family of bigoted people. Watching TV made me question my own family's beliefs in the natural inferiority of people of color. For me, TV was a real window that broadened my world."
Ironically, for Shriver, watching TV news is incredibly painful when the broadcast is about you. Being a Kennedy, Shriver has lived a lifetime in the glare of rumors and televised speculation about her own family. Presenting the news to her children has therefore included explaining the tragedies and controversies the Kennedys have endured. She was just eight years old when her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated: "I grew up in a very big shadow...and I couldn't avoid it," she admits. "It wasn't a choker, but it was a big responsibility that I don't want my own children to feel." Yet doesn't her 15- year marriage to megastar Schwarzenegger add yet another layer of public curiosity close to home? "My kids are not watching Entertainment Tonight--no, no, never! And I don't bring them to movie openings or Planet Hollywood. I think it's fine for them to be proud of their father, but not show off about him."
How does she emotionally handle news when her family's in it? "That's a line I've been walking since my own childhood, and it's certainly effected the kind of reporter I've become. It's made me less aggressive. I'm not [in the news business] to glorify myself at someone else's expense, but rather to report a story without destroying someone in the process. A producer might say: 'Call this person who's in a disastrous situation and book them right way.' And I'm like: 'Ahhhh. I can't even bring myself to do it,' because I've been on the other side and know the family is in such pain."
A few years ago, of course, the Kennedys experienced profound pain, yet again, when Shriver's beloved cousin, John F. Kennedy, Jr., was killed in a plane crash, with his wife, Carolyn, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette. A blizzard of news coverage ensued, unremitting for weeks. "I didn't watch any of it...I was busy, " Shriver says quietly. "And my children didn't watch any of it either."
Shriver was, however, somewhat prepared to discuss the tragedy with her children. She is the author of the best-selling "What's Heaven?" [Golden Books], a book geared for children ages 4-8, which explains death and the loss of a loved one. "My children knew John well because he spent Christmases with us. I explained what happened to John as the news unfolded...walked them through it as best I could. I reminded them that Mommy wrote the book and said: 'We're not going to see John anymore. He has gone to God...to heaven...and we have to pray for him and for his sister [Caroline] and her children."
Like Shriver, Jennings is personally uncomfortable in the role of covering private tragedies in a public forum: "In my shop, I'm regarded as one of those people who drags their feet a lot at the notion of covering those things," he explains. "During the O.J. Simpson trial, I decided not to go crazy in our coverage--and we took quite a smack and dropped from first to second in the ratings. TV is a business, so when a real corker of a story like Princess Diana's death comes along, we cover it. I think we're afraid not to do it. We're guilty of overkill, and with Diana, we ended up celebrating something that was largely ephemeral, making Diana more than she was. But audiences leap up!
"I was totally opposed to covering John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s funeral, because I saw no need to do it. He wasn't a public figure, though others would say I was wrong. On-air, I said: 'I don't think the young Mr. Kennedy would approve of all this excess...' But we did three hours on the funeral and it turned out to be a wonderful long history lesson about American politics and the Kennedy dynasty's place in our national life.
"Sometimes," Jennings muses, "TV is like a chapel in which we, as a nation, can gather to have a communal experience of loss.We did it with the Challenger, more recently with JFK Jr.'s death and we will do it shortly, I suspect, though I hope not, with Ronald Reagan. It's not much different than what people did when they went West in covered wagons in the last century. When tragedy struck, they gathered the wagons around, lit the fire, and talked about their losses of the day. And then went on. Television can be very comforting."
In closing, Ellerbee contends that you can't blame TV news producers for the human appetite for sensational news coverage that often drags on for days at a time:
"As a reporter," she muses, "I have never been to a war, traffic accident, or murder site that didn't draw a crowd. There is a little trash in all of us. But the same people who stop to gawk at a traffic accident, may also climb down a well to save a child's life, or cry at a sunset, or grin and tap their feet when the parade goes by.
"We are NOT just one thing. Kids can understand these grays...just as there's more than one answer to a question, there is certainly more than one part to you!"
Bestselling author GLENN PLASKIN is one of the nation's leading psychology reporters and celebrity interviewers. His specialty today is interviewing the nation's top experts in spirituality, motivation, happiness, and self- improvement. A contributing editor at FAMILY CIRCLE, the world' s largest women's magazine, he is available for TV, radio, and print interviews. He can be contacted directly: [email protected]. He also coaches those interested in writing articles and books.
He is the author of two books--HOROWITZ--the biography of Vladimir Horowitz--and TURNING POINT: Pivotal Moments in the Lives of America's Celebrities. His celebrity interviews have appeared in Family Circle, US, Ladies Home Journal,Playboy, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and more than 50 U.S. newspapers. His column TURNING POINT was syndicated by Tribune Media Services in more than 50 U.S. newspapers.