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Managing sad or distressing news in the media

Our screens and print media are filled with distressing current global events. Sadly, natural disasters, shootings and terrorist attacks infiltrate our news feeds, newspapers and TV screens on a daily basis. In recent times, there have been some very distressing global events that are heavily reported in the media.

This information and footage can be distressing for adults, but even more so for children who don’t yet understand the magnitude of such events. Children are often still developing their emotional skills that are required to process and cope with such situations. Yet, they’re being bombarded with confronting footage on their screens and are often consuming second-hand news via their siblings’ and parents’ devices.

Depending on the age of your child they won’t yet have the same hindsight and rational thinking skills that we have developed as adults. This means that if they’re hearing and seeing the same message repeatedly, via the media, they may think that it’s a catastrophic experience happening everywhere and that they will somehow be involved. Often after natural disasters or terrorist attacks, or distressing events there’s limited video footage and images available so the same media is replayed and re-used repeatedly, which gives some children the impression that they event is occurring again and again.

Children also may be unable to localise the experience and may fret that the same event may occur to them. They may also not articulate this fear to you, but it is something that they may instead internalise.

Whilst it’s sometimes very difficult to completely shield young children from distressing global events, we can minimise their exposure.


Here are my tips when there’s distressing world events reported in the news:

1. Minimise exposure– Even though it’s difficult to do, try to avoid exposing your child to the news about the distressing global event, especially if they’re under 7 years of age. This might mean avoiding the TV news or reading the newspaper around your children for the next couple of days. If you want to keep up to date yourself, use passive forms of media (social media away from kids, or reading newspapers when they’re not present). Preschoolers, in particular, should be shielded from such media coverage as they find it very difficult to discern fact from fantasy.

2. Mind your conversation– Be mindful about discussing the events in front of your children. They’re observing and listening, even if they don’t appear to be interested. They may not ask you questions, but often they’re internalising and taking in the information (yet they may not have the hindsight and emotional resources required to process the information).

3. Reassure children– For children who have heard about the event, talk to them, reassure them that they’re safe and answer any of their concerns. It’s also an opportunity to address any of their misconceptions (often they hear inaccurate, second-hand recounts from peers). Assure your child that they can ask you questions, so that they can validate any information.

4. Watch with them– If your child is old enough to discuss and see footage of the catastrophic events, try to co-view where possible. This allows you to answer any questions immediately and help them to contextualise and localise the events. Remember, most news content is designed for adult viewers, so it may not be age-appropriate (even if it shows up as ads on children’s websites and apps). In addition, given the ubiquity of mobile devices, there’s now a lot of live, ‘raw’ and unedited footage available, which can be very distressing for children to watch, but very easy for them to access.

Please SHARE this with other people if you feel that it will help.

I talk to parents throughout Australia about screen-time and how parents can help their children use technology in healthy and helpful ways (and also minimise any potential risks). Click here

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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