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
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
On CNN, there’s a report about the earthquake in Turkey, with 2,000
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
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
“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
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
Although there are no rules about watching TV in 49% of the nation’s
households, TV-watching at the Schwarzenegger home is almost totally
“We have a blanket rule that my kids news 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