The news can be as terrifying as any horror movie. It can also be thought provoking and even vital, but when should our children begin to learn about conflict beyond the confines of their playgroup? How early is too early? How long should we bubble wrap the reality of a world that many of us as adults find too distressing to get our heads around?
If we fail to feed them some of the hard facts, are we robbing them of the chance to establish a deep-rooted sense of social responsibility? Are we instead helping to shape another generation readily seduced by fake news or no news at all?
With the ubiquitous presence of technology and an explosion of sex and violence on our screens, young children are no longer automatically shielded from areas of life that have little to do with the gentle rhythm of the nursery rhymes and make believe games that keep them zipping about filled with energy and joie de vivre.
This is the age of information overload and naturally that means that some of it is spilling into an age bracket that can barely write their name. Of course, some news is good news. But when it turns a shade darker, do we try to explain – give it a context to help them cope or simply hope they either haven’t heard or won’t dwell on it?
At Common Sense Media, a US organisation set up to help parents navigate their way through the information age, the departure point for initiating our children into the basics of the news is the age of seven. Prior to that it holds that a child is simply unlikely to differentiate between fact and fiction. “They might hear news that’s happening in Africa,” says Maria O. Alvarez, vice president at Common Sense Latino, “and feel it’s a threat to the family next door.”
But King’s College counsellor Laura Zozoya has a different take on it. “At age three or four, children have access to many things,” she says. “If we don’t explain these things from an early age, they can’t process it. It’s good to show this age group that people do things wrong and help them separate intention, action, thought and feeling.”
According to Laura, we underestimate children’s coping mechanisms, but she does stress that the news on TV should always be watched with an adult who can provide support. “More than what they see, it’s about the reaction family members have to it,” she says. She also points out that it is good to make young children aware that not everything they see or hear is true.
Laura does insist, however, that all news should be adapted to the child’s capacity to understand. Many children’s nightmares are borne of an inability to grasp the real scale of what they hear and blow it out of proportion. While Laura explains that nightmares actually help children confront their fears, to be told that they should recycle and look after the planet is one thing, but to explain the whys and wherefores, such as rising sea levels, is a game changer – particularly if they live on the coast!
According to Joanne Weale, Primary teacher at King’s College Madrid, who teaches a class of four to five year olds, it’s all about being selective. “We are actually making rainmakers to put out the fires in the Australian rainforest and now we are looking at the negative influences man is having on Earth, and how we can help and how others are helping,” she says, adding that she might gloss over other issues that could have an immediate and direct impact on the kids and their families.
Head of Primary at King’s College Murcia Joanne Stackhouse, meanwhile, points out that the school uses the online site Espresso for current affairs. “Espresso news is great,” she says, “and is targeted in fact to EYFS, KS1 and KS2 so is very age appropriate.”
Of course, beyond the age of seven, children are better equipped to cope with more detail and measure the implications of what they are being told, but it still needs to be delivered in a thoughtful manner.
“I would recommend that parents find some slow time to read without distractions, sitting in a chair or sofa, and really put some
concentration into it,” says Dr. Radesky, assistant professor of paediatrics at the University of Michigan. “We want kids to process important information this way — not multitasking, not just responding to what is the most exciting headline, not tweeting with anger about an article they half-read. We should show our kids that the news isn’t just entertaining and attention-grabbing, but it is a resource for making us better team players in our neighbourhoods and our world, especially when we can really digest what is going on and think of solutions.”
Laura Zozoya agrees. “If you don’t tell them about negative reality, they won’t know how to develop and improve it, if they want to,” she says.
Certainly, at one stage or another, we need to help our children take note of what is happening around them. It does not have to be of the “a man was stabbed” variety favoured by mainstream media outlets, but if we fail to help them listen and analyse, we are failing to help them establish good news consumption habits.
They may simply become deaf to the news or only be capable of listening to half the story resulting in a society that jumps to unbalanced conclusions and fails to understand that what is going on is rarely black and white.
Good news outlets for kids
- Twinkl NewsRoom: For younger age groups – this news site focuses on general issues such as climate change, how to detect fake news or an upcoming event on the calendar. It can be consumed online but there is also a jazzy monthly magazine.
- The Learning Network: this is a teen-friendly on-line section of The New York Times that engages children in the news, inviting them to join the current affairs conversation and post comments that may subsequently be published. By encouraging participation with through-provoking questions and prompts, this site goes a long way towards establishing good news consumption habits.
- The Week Junior: The Week does a round up of the news over the last seven days as the title suggests. The articles are short to avoid children being bogged down in detail but offer enough to keep them informed. The lay out is colourful and the headlines snappy, though not sensational. It takes a look at politicians and their personal lives, talks about a range of subjects from immigration, climate change to online abuse, with some funny or just plain bizarre news stories to keep the mood light.