Guest post: 'Protecting children from distressing news stories - it's a question of judgement'
Current affairs journalist Tazeen Ahmad considers whether we can - or should - protect children from news of distressing world events
Posted on: Mon 27-Oct-14 15:56:11
(24 comments )
The top story is bad enough: "Tree kills woman in Kensington, another falls on man in Belgravia."
But even I am gobsmacked by the next: "A man who bludgeoned three sisters with a hammer in a hotel room has been found guilty of attempted murder."
I panic-dive for the radio dial, almost crashing the car. Protests from the gruesome pairing in the back come quickly:
"NOOOO, don't turn it down!" yells my 9 year old.
"Mama," pipes up the 7 year old after a moment of quiet contemplation, "I kinda like the news and don't like the news because it is so freaky."
As I consider my response, he adds:
"It makes me want to know lots about the world."
"Yeah," joins in big brother, a satisfied grin spreading across his face, "the news is gory, but I like it too."
Tomorrow's psychopaths or journalists-in-the-making? I wonder.
After twenty years as a TV reporter, I took the view that my kids would live in the real world. I was raised internationally by a historian father and teacher mother who buried themselves (and us) in newspapers, current affairs magazines and political tomes. The BBC's World Service news played constantly; my path to journalism was almost pre-ordained.
As an investigative reporter and former foreign correspondent, I've worked on some big and terrible stories, most of which I will keep from my children until they are older. The discretion that technology now provides means I can hide ghastly newspaper headlines and screeching 24 hour news behind a Twitter feed or a tablet. But motherly multi-tasking means regular doses of radio news.
The age where technology will be at their command is a heartbeat away, so for now, all I can attempt to do is lead by example.
John Humphrys joins us for breakfast most mornings. I invite him and the Today show posse in, knowing the chatter around our kitchen table drowns out their doom and gloom. My two are so entrenched in rowing over cereals, loomband bracelets and whose turn it is to get in the car first, they barely listen.
But the drive to school enters the danger zone. I need the day's news so one hand stays on the wheel, the other on volume control. Rape, violence, mass murder, the dial goes right down. Politics, social affairs, education, both hands relax on the wheel, and I get questions all the way to school.
A story about Defence leads to:
"Why can't you leave the army?"
"What if you saw so much killing you couldn't handle it anymore?"
The story of a paralysed man who could walk again elicits:
"What are stem cells?"
"Could he think?"
My children, like all children, love stories. So I filter the X-rated story-telling on the school-run, like a hyper-vigilant tigress. There are stories I will totally close down - the truly overwhelming ones. When the Sandy Hook school shooting happened, my kids were kept oblivious. Their Connecticut cousins live a few miles from that school and it felt too close to home.
Some of my friends go further. Over dinner with mums I have known since our children were babies, one announced she has completely banned the radio, TV and newspapers. "I don't want my kids thinking all Muslims are terrorists and Africans send deadly diseases to the UK," she said.
She has a point. Even an adult struggles to run these stories through a filter, but our children's world views are only just forming.
A school project recently brought this home in stark terms. My 9-year-old had to do a montage about his ethnic origins. His father's side of the family got all the good press; the German football team, a sunny Cypriot beach. Then it came to mine. He drew the Pakistani flag, adding a sign saying "No girls allowed". Above it a US drone and two stickmen holding guns.
He's not even been to Pakistan.
I respond with outrage at this disparaging interpretation, but a well-informed response is shot back: "But Mama, what about Malala, the gun fighting in Karachi, and the American warplanes?"
News from Pakistan doesn't make for a pretty picture. After much negotiation, a sanitised version emerges with the cricket team and a sketch of his granny's chicken curry.
I'm conscious that my quality-control act has an expiry date; the age where technology will be at their command is a heartbeat away, so for now, all I can attempt to do is lead by example.
As a yang to my journalistic yin, I hold talks and classes on living an intelligent but emotionally healthy, self-aware life. For me, that means occasionally turning off the news and tuning into my immediate environment instead. I'm trying to send a message to my kids that a 360-degree reality is composed of as much our own experiences as those of others.
Allowing them to learn about the world while ensuring they feel happy and safe is a balance I will clumsily continue to strike. But until their fingers take over, mine shall hover over that dial.
By Tazeen Ahmad
I think it is a difficult balance to strike but one we have to strive after because it is simply not right to raise children in a bubble of isolation. However nor would it imo be good parenting to allow young children to hear all the reported horror of Sandy Hook or the recent hostage beheadings. I want to raise children who know who the prime minister is, who recognise the impact of fair trade, know what happened on 9/11 and so on. So whatever they are exposed too I have to honestly explain it. Touch going sometimes.
I miss the standards which used to prevail for the 6 O'Clock News (pre-watershed, immediately after children's programming).
Adults have the 10 O'Clock News for more graphic versions (is such is wanted/necessary).
But news suitable for a range of ages? It vanished. And when the BBC decided to show the snuff movie of the actual killing of Ghadaffi three hours before the watershed, I knew there were no longer any family-inclusive broadcasters.
With a DD aged 7 who has a thirst for knowledge, and DS aged 4 who can't understand my simplified explanations of news stories, I'm finding it difficult to strike the balance of informing my eldest without scaring the youngest. We have discovered First News weekly newspaper which is pitched perfectly for my DD to read, and I make time to talk through the articles with her. You can get a 3-month subscription using Tesco Clubcard vouchers, then it arrives in the post every Friday. It's our new weekend ritual now.
I feel I can explain/discuss violent news with my children, but how do you approach sexual crimes?
I'm not ready to explain these and they're often reported during daytime news/radio. I end up doing the quick switch off, how do others approach this? Dds, 5 and 9.
I think this applies to newspapers as well. esp those who like bold,
for dummies easy to read headlines and pictures.
I was watching the news when the little April Jones went missing in 2012, my little ones were only 3 and 2 at the time. My daughter was old enough to understand that a little girl had gone missing and asked a lot of questions about it. I explained as much as I could without terrifying her but she kept asking "but won't her mummy miss her mummy?" And "when will she go home mummy?" And more questions along those lines. Eventually I had to explain that she wouldn't ever be going home and she'd gone to heaven (which provoked even more heartbreaking questions). After that I decided no more news on the radio or tv. I don't want my little ones being warped by things they're too young to hear.
I remember being 11 and Britain had just invaded Iraq, for weeks I was terrified that something like WW2 was going to happen and we'd all die. (To be fair, we were learning about WW2 at the time and I was always quite an anxious child). I think that there was so many adults, news stories and radio reports on it that it had convinced me the bombs were going to start falling and not even my beloved uncle (the only adult I ever trusted) could assure me otherwise. Even now I'm petrified about stories of war, sure that we're only one step away from it happening in the uk.
It's definitely a case of using your judgement. Some children are able to understand and process more at different ages. Some children will need a lot longer before they're able to deal with the realities of the world. It's not about wrapping them up in cotton wool, it's about deciding whether they are able to cope with the reality or if it would terrify them. I plan on keeping my children as oblivious as possible until the time comes when they are ready to face the reality. And children give you a fairly good idea when they're ready for that just by asking questions. If they sit covering their ears with their eyes closed tight or run out of the room, it's a good indication that what they're hearing is scary to them.
I was very frightened of Russia as a child and had nightmares about Colonel Ghadaffi (bizarrely) when I was about 8.
Our news diet sounds very similar to the OP and I rarely turn it off. Sometimes I will if there is a lot of discussion of sexual abuse cases but not very often.
The only time I turned the radio off entirely, for days, was the Sandy Hook shooting a few years ago. My children know that bad things happen, and some places aren't as nice to live as ours for a variety of reasons, but I didn't want them to think it was even a possibility that someone could do that to them at school.
My dc came out of school perturbed by Ebola and I wish we'd been listening to the news together, so she could have understood it better before the school gave their 'don't worry now children but there's something to worry about' message. It's not that we don't listen to the news.... But once a day on the radio is enough for me... So the dc don't always follow it.
News reports go into crimes in such graphic detail these days that we never have the radio on if the children are around (we have no television). We have to hide the newspapers too usually, as headlines are so graphic also.
I do not want my tiny children (who are excellent readers btw, and have been from young ages) to even find out about rape, beheadings, FGM, sex tapes etc My eldest has AS, and has enough anxieties already, without worrying about the news.
We do talk about politics, papal election, olympics, Scottish referendum etc with them.
I was a small child in the early 60s. Our parents sheltered us from the 'bad' things in the world. We knew not to talk to strangers, but really didn't think about why. Many conversations were abruptly terminated when we entered the room as 'not fit for the children'. The news wasn't something we really ever watched. But we also had freedom children don't have today. We went from house to house, played out all day with nary a parent watching over us, worried about abduction. As a result, we never worried about things and could just concentrate on being kids. Life was easy and happy. But I expect we were also vulnerable. My son was raised as an 'aware child'. We explained things to him, he knew about 'bad touches', he saw what went on in the world. We kept a much closer eye on his comings and goings than my parents ever did ours. As a result, even though he was a happy child, he says that he wasn't worry-free. He's said he wishes he'd been a child when I was because of the innocence we had then.
Unfortunately, I don't think there's any way to go back to the way it was 'back then'. You cannot undo the way the world is now. But IMO, yes, to some extent, children should be protected from distressing news.
But acrossthepomd, these were the same 'innocent days' when children were being systematically abused by people in all sorts of authority and had few places to go.
It wasn't all lashings of ginger beer & hopscotch.
No, you're right. But systematic abuse continues even today, although it's true that the victims have more resources and get better help than when I was young. We would never, as children, have heard of those cases. Today's children, I think, hear too much.
Ds was 5 when Madeleine McCann went missing. Even today the fear of him being kidnapped has never left him. He saw the posters and there was no way we could have hidden it from him, but it has had long lasting repercussions. He hates being alone in his bedroom at night when his imagination takes over, although he is confident in lots of other ways. Ebola has worried him and his peers. We rarely have the news on, as I know certain things will worry him.
The news is far too graphic IMO.
I don't want my 2 and 5 year old to hear the news so we have to be careful with the radio. And no news on TV.
When I was a kid, I remember hearing about the gulf war and being terrified that we were going to be bombed. No one explained the war properly to me as a kid.
I will raise my children in a bubble of the wider world until they're older - e.g they don't need to know grim stories such as baby p - but they will have a realistic outlook in terms of things immediately around them!
I do think that we are becoming desensitised to bad news and as a result things are told in a more graphic way.
and I also find the donations appeals, which are often quite graphic, difficult to explain to my dc
I've stopped watching the news and reading most newspapers, because they're either simply dwelling on gory details which doesn't help anyone understand why, and my 6yo gets anxious way too easily as it is, or simply reheating press releases and announcing things someone has said, rather than investigating to establish exactly what is going on and why.
Ds can read now, so train travel where over half the ads are charity appeals requires a lot of reassurance. Forget Page 3 - ds is unlikely to see that for ages though obviously kids whose parents do buy the Sun will - what I'd like to see removed from kids' view is the garish weeklies "My dad said he was dying but he lied" "my mum killed my brother" "raped by my teacher" etc, plus pics of near-naked women and "Celebname: my shame from putting on 5 pounds". How do I explain any of that?
I have the news on in the car and occasionally my 4yo will ask me questions or I will talk to him about something I feel is important. This morning we listened to Thought for the Day on R4 and then I switched the radio off to talk to DS about the boat people in terms that he could understand. I think it's important that he realises that not everyone in the world is as fortunate as we are and that he knows that he can make choices to be kind. That goes hand-in-hand with ensuring that he feels secure within his sphere of family, school and community.
I remember always watching Newsround with my mum and talking about the reports afterwards. I looked at Newsround recently and it was full of celebrity rubbish. I don't want my DS, and even less my DD, to be exposed to celebrity culture until it becomes unavoidable. It's a real shame as Newsround used to be fantastic at explaining stories: I still retain information from its reports on the Bosnian and Kosovan conflicts.
Yes, we want. There were no longer any family-inclusive broadcasters.
But i think it is very difficult
IMO the balance shouldn't come from us as parents but from the broadcasters. To shelter children from what goes on in the world around them is to create a view that bad things don't happen, and when/if they do they are not equipped to process them.
That being said, the levels of reporting, plus the wall-to-wall news culture we nnow have means that reporting needs to take on a whole new and more explicit view in order to keep the viewer interested. Added to that, the existence of social media and smartphone technology where pretty much anyone can make a recording of some hideous event and upload it to the internet for all to see has taken some news broadcasting out of the professional arena into the public domain. Within ten minutes of Friday night's shootings in Paris I had an alert on periscope to watch a broadcast from someone on the scene with sirens in the background. And more and more the broadcasters are requesting people on the ground to send them this kind of footage.
I am a news junky and have always been ever since I can remember, as is my xh and so is my 13 yo ds. He has bbc news alerts on his phone and often texts me headlines etc. I would always answer his questions honestly, but I do wish that we didn't need to have news in such graphic detail, not because I think the children need sheltering from it but because much of it just isn't necessary. Front page headlines of beheadings and the like and video's such as the one on the bbc of the concert being stopped by gunfire are just unnecessary and voyeuristic. It's possible to report on what happened without having to go into the graphic detail just to ensure you hold the public's interest.
We live in Paris and this weekend had to think about how to tell our DC about what happened.
DS2 is only 18 months so not necessary, but DS1 is 4 and at school. I knew that if we didn't tell him something, he'd hear lots of mangled stories there.
We kept it very simple. He latched onto something we'd said without realising he was listening, so we built up around that (we live near the Eiffel Tower and it's closed indefinitely). It meant we could say about the police and army being here to protect us from baddies and some mean people have hurt others. And some places are closed so that the baddies can't go there (our local parks are either closed, or closing early).
He has no concept of death or killing, though I think it'll come soon from school
We know that school is having a minute silence today, so hopefully the teachers will explain it in an age appropriate way.
My friend lives 150m from the Bataclan so she has to think how to explain all the blood/flowers/candles/police to her very young DC
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