Should kids watch the nightly news?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 25, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, My 8-year-old son asked us the other night why he wasn't allowed to watch the news.  He said that "all of my friends are allowed to watch it."  We know that isn't true, and my husband and I told him that there were many inappropriate things on the news that we didn't want him hearing or seeing, and that if there were things happening in the world that he needed to know, we would tell him.

But are we being too overprotective?  What age is appropriate?  With all the sensationalism in news coverage today, I'm not sure I'm old enough sometimes at 38 years old!  Are there websites we can use?  We want to raise well-informed, civic-minded kids, but I'm not sure that the local news is the mechanism to do that.  Any suggestions?

From: Akraz, Hopedale, MA

Hi Akraz,

You're not being over-protective, you're using good common sense. For the record, when my son was growing up, my husband and I never had the nightly news on when Eli was awake. There were even days when the newspaper conveniently didn't get delivered if there were images on the front page that were too graphic.

Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint agrees with me. He has a 10-year-old daughter and the news is never on in his house when she's awake.

“It’s too graphic,” says Poussaint, who is also director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children's Center.  “Earthquake victims, crumbled and dead. Reams of stories about Tiger Woods having sex with this one and that. How do kids interpret that? They can’t distance themselves from it, they personalize it. When they see someone pulled from the rubble, they wonder, ‘Could that be me? Could that be mom or dad?’”

Even when parents are right there to interpret what’s on the screen – assuming that’s even possible -- it wouldn’t be enough, Poussaint says. “The graphic images would still penetrate their brains and stay there and it would give the kids a skewed view of the world: that it’s an unsafe, horrific place in which to grow up, filled with bad people, bad athletes, everyone doing the wrong thing.”

“Look at it this way,” he continues. “If the nightly news had a TV-rating, it would be at least TV-14, for Mature Audiences.”

When your son says that all his friends watch the news, Poussaint would answer, “The people who put the news on TV sometimes make it sensational – that means they make it more gory than it really is because that makes some adults watch it more. I don’t like that, but some adults do. So if there’s something you need to know about on the news, I”ll tell you, but without all the sensationalism of TV news.”

Then, he adds, be sure that you do. A child needs to know about something big that happens in the world because it will a topic at school.

He might also tell a child who says all his friends watch it, “That doesn’t mean it’s good for them. In our family, I know what’s best for you.”

None of this means your child can't or shouldn't be aware of what's happening in the world.

With today's technology, you can prerecord a news show or item that your child might find interesting, watch it together and even go to the web to learn more about it, says Eitan Schwarz, author of a new book, "Kids, Parents and Technology: An Instruction Manual for Young Families."

"But always watch together," he writes in an email, "and have an ongoing conversation about each topic – especially the values, morals, and social issues covered." He advises that national news shows are better than local ones for viewing with school-aged children.

A good resource is commonsense.org.

I'd love to hear how some other parents handle this.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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15 comments so far...
  1. I'd be glad if my child wanted to watch the news. We've never kept our kids from watching the news. I was watching body counts from Vietnam when I was 7 and I'm hardly scarred. I think, with guidance, kids can handle watching coverage of an earthquake in Haiti. Some of this stuff goes over their heads anyway.

    I do think you should watch it together.

    I actually don't believe all his friends watch the news because I believe most people don't watch the news.

    Posted by ash February 25, 10 09:12 AM
  1. I'm glad to hear we're doing the right thing at our house. No news for the kids. This morning my husband had the Today show on while getting dressed (he's an Olympics junkie) and the story came on about a killer whale killing his trainer at Sea World. My six year old freaked out. "Would that happen at the Aquarium, Mom?" He doesn't need that kind of stress.

    Posted by RH February 25, 10 09:21 AM
  1. I was just wondering about this last night, if I was sheltering my kids too much, since they are 7 and 9 and I have never really watched the news. I decided it was still way too soon and I'm glad to see you agree. I also often close the page of Boston.com when one of them looks over my shoulder, due to some of the headlines. I remember a few years ago when the mother of a 5 year old said to me condescendingly, "we eat dinner and watch the news together every night." When I questioned it, she said her son needed to know what was going on in the world. To me, that is insane. I feel exactly the same way as Alvin Poussant. I know from experience, once you see those horrible images you can't get them out of your head. The kids can't process things like that, when I can't even do it. It's not fair to expose them.

    I think it goes for many other television shows as well. The themes on even the Disney channel are, in my opinion, far too mature for the young children who are watching these programs, but the majority of parents think they're "harmless" or that they have no choice but to let their kids watch. Unfortunately, I'm in the minority when it comes to these issues and it drives me nuts!

    Posted by Michelle February 25, 10 09:34 AM
  1. We don't generally watch the news on TV, but I do have NPR on in the car and kitchen while I make dinner, and the kids often wander in and listen to the stories. They tend to be a little less graphic and sensational than the TV, but they do spur questions at times. My 10 year old will also pick up the newspaper and read stories that catch his attention. We have dinner table conversations about current events and issues, and make a point of asking the kids what they've heard and what they think. We've always been able to alleviate any concerns, at least so far.

    Posted by akmom February 25, 10 09:37 AM
  1. I have to say I agree that censoring graphic images and headlines is a good idea, but not allowing kids to watch the news in general seems a little overprotective to me. The real question is: Why haven't we as a nation, put more pressure on the media to report information in a way that everyone can hear? Sure there are people who want to see the gore, but is that the majority? I was appauled that the recent young man who lost his life while practicing for the Luge event had the story and pictures of his body being flung from the track on popular news websites and stations. Is this really neccesary? Growing up us a kid, my parents had the news on after dinner. I learned from their interest in the world and local events and we had lots of educational conversations as a result. Teachers include some current events in their curriculum, but it's a parent's job to educate children about the world. This idea that we should shelter our children from everything isn't working. We're raising kids who are less informed, overly coddled and don't have a realistic understanding of the world. What will happen when they're faced with real problems or tragedy? How can we expect them to be prepared for the real world when they've been sheltered all their lives? I believe in balance, but this trend of protecting our children from everything is disturbing to me- kids need to learn ( when lead by responsible adults) and can handle more than we give them credit for!


    Posted by Kay February 25, 10 11:22 AM
  1. In my opinion, it's pretty sad if you think that you're doing your kids any favors by sparing them from watching the news. Stress, scarred? Please.

    Watch the news, then - and I know that this is the real kicker for most people - actually TALK to them about what they're seeing/hearing. Why don't people just suck it up and communicate with their kids as if you're the one who's supposed to be teaching them about what's REALLY going on in the world
    Did a whale kill a trainer - yes it did, these are animals first and foremost, even if they live in an aquarium, they never lose their wild instincts.
    Did tiger bang a whole bunch of women who aren't his wife - yes he did, some people aren't good spouses and have too much fun when they're not at home. But mommy/daddy love, and would never do that to, eachother.
    Did an earthquake happen - yes it did and it's a horrible thing. Let's use this as a learning opportunity that you need emergency plans, some places in the world are naturally unsafe, etc.

    Posted by IK February 25, 10 11:37 AM
  1. TV news is lurid sensational trash, which isn't worthy of viewing for almost anyone anyway. They don't show what is important or relevant, but rather what is most shocking, especially if there's video.

    I'll listen to NPR and read The Economist and some other news and business magazines. For kids, I'd rather get them a weekly news magazine intended for children, like Time For Kids.

    Posted by usalibertarian February 25, 10 11:46 AM
  1. Yes, god forbid our children know what's going on in the world, because kid's worlds should all be sunshine and unicorns.

    Posted by C February 25, 10 11:48 AM
  1. I agree with akmom about NPR. I don't watch tv news mySELF because it's often too distressing. I stay informed with NPR and internet news sites. NPR doesn't soft-pedal if there's something important and disturbing, like the Haiti earthquake, or I remember a story a while ago about rape as a weapon of war in the Congo. But they don't unnecessarily sensationalize. Also, if it's really bad, they warn you ahead of time, and somehow listening to these things makes it less traumatic.

    Posted by Carriefran February 25, 10 12:06 PM
  1. I agree with IK 100%! It's better for the kids to learn about what's going on in the world in the safety of their homes with their parents talking them through it. They're going to hear snippets of news here and there, so you might as well be pro-active and try to control the flow of information (kind of like talking to your kids about sex). But my question is, do the kids REALLY want to sit through a newscast? Or do they overhear something that catches their attention and want to see the story? When I was a kid, I thought the news was boring and couldn't wait for it to be over so we could watch Joker's Wild.

    Posted by chilly February 25, 10 02:48 PM
  1. Oh my goodness, the sarcasm from some of the posters -- as if the only way a child will become knowledgeable is by watching the TV news. Do you actually watch it? It is not about current events, or politics, or climate change, or scientific progress... it is about who murdered whom, which child died recently, what celebrity is having affairs. It is sensational, tabloid-style entertainment disguised as news.

    My kids don't need to see that "news" to be well-informed citizens. Sure, we could watch it together and then process it. We could also, I suppose, watch TMZ live or Entertainment tonight and then process it. The educational value is about the same.

    My kids are both well-informed about current events because we talk about things as a family. We do sometimes listen to NPR together. We read some stories online together.

    The choice is not between "sunshine and unicorns" and well-informed kids. If the news were actually news and not lazy, tabloid journalism, that would be closer to a valid argument. But as the TV news is right now, that is a false dichotomy. There are other, far more valuable ways for children to learn about the world.

    Posted by jlen February 25, 10 04:09 PM
  1. I don't watch TV news. Never did, even when I had a TV, and now since we have no TV and no cable, it's not very easy to watch (we have a tuner, but it's a pain to watch stuff on the computer most days). I read the headlines, but I can go 3-4 days without really reading the news. Somehow, I survive.

    I remember reading a quote from an Amish person once. They basically said something to the effect of "Hearing about 10 different wars that I can do nothing about does not make my life richer." This is pretty much how I feel. I read our local community paper. I research candidates when there is an election. I listen to NPR when I am alone in the car (because otherwise I can't hear it over the kids' chatter). But do I really need to hear all the gory details of every murder, child abuse case, and road accident in the state? Does this make my life better? Why should I help the media profit from the sorrows of others? I can respond to the call for help for Haiti without ever seeing a single picture of a collapsed building or dead body. And if I can be a full and productive citizen without having CNN on 24/7, then I am pretty sure my kids can too.


    Posted by BMS February 25, 10 04:19 PM
  1. Some good points here, on both sides.

    Let me add a plug for the BBC America news program, an hourlong broadcast produced by the BBC for the American audience, ie US and world news, not local UK news. It's informative, well researched, and global, but not quite as dull (sorry!) as PBS news can be. Its on at 7pm on the BBC America cable channel. I imagine a curious 10 or 11 year old could watch it with a parent and really get something out of it....and it includes ZERO of the "Coming up next, how your toothpaste can kill you" stories featured on the local "news."

    Posted by serafina February 26, 10 04:20 PM
  1. I agree, many times in the news adults interpret things wrongly. The news often times provides a wrong image, but leaving things unsaid, and providing info on just one point of view.

    Posted by prin09 April 30, 11 01:26 PM
  1. I read through these comments with people saying that the news is too gory, or the news is too much like a celebrity tabloid or that they listen to NPR to soften the blow. I say, children SHOULD watch the news. And as parents, you should watch it with them and answer their questions. There is not one reason that they shouldn't be allowed to know what's going on around them.

    Who cares if there's a story about a rape? It's happened in your state, maybe even recently. Kids need to know that not everyone in the world is good and that there are bad people out there.
    Same thing with terrorism. Yes, it's bad, but it happens. They are just bad people. Kids need to know that the MAJORITY of people are good, but they may have to come across someone in their life who is not so nice.
    With political news, your child is probably not going to completely comprehend what the heck the reporter is talking about. (Heck, sometimes I don't even know.) That's why you are there to talk through it and help them out. Let them make some decisions. ------- Maybe they'll even grow up to be a consistent voter!...

    If your child doesn't want to watch the news. Ease them into it. They need to have some comprehension of the world around them - even if it's just a small 5 minute a night story.

    Again, you say that news is too gory. What about that movie that's rated R or PG-13 they watched before? Unless you're son or daughter is scared of everything and has nightmares about everything imaginable, it's not too gory for them.

    Posted by taylorw728 July 26, 12 10:14 PM
 
15 comments so far...
  1. I'd be glad if my child wanted to watch the news. We've never kept our kids from watching the news. I was watching body counts from Vietnam when I was 7 and I'm hardly scarred. I think, with guidance, kids can handle watching coverage of an earthquake in Haiti. Some of this stuff goes over their heads anyway.

    I do think you should watch it together.

    I actually don't believe all his friends watch the news because I believe most people don't watch the news.

    Posted by ash February 25, 10 09:12 AM
  1. I'm glad to hear we're doing the right thing at our house. No news for the kids. This morning my husband had the Today show on while getting dressed (he's an Olympics junkie) and the story came on about a killer whale killing his trainer at Sea World. My six year old freaked out. "Would that happen at the Aquarium, Mom?" He doesn't need that kind of stress.

    Posted by RH February 25, 10 09:21 AM
  1. I was just wondering about this last night, if I was sheltering my kids too much, since they are 7 and 9 and I have never really watched the news. I decided it was still way too soon and I'm glad to see you agree. I also often close the page of Boston.com when one of them looks over my shoulder, due to some of the headlines. I remember a few years ago when the mother of a 5 year old said to me condescendingly, "we eat dinner and watch the news together every night." When I questioned it, she said her son needed to know what was going on in the world. To me, that is insane. I feel exactly the same way as Alvin Poussant. I know from experience, once you see those horrible images you can't get them out of your head. The kids can't process things like that, when I can't even do it. It's not fair to expose them.

    I think it goes for many other television shows as well. The themes on even the Disney channel are, in my opinion, far too mature for the young children who are watching these programs, but the majority of parents think they're "harmless" or that they have no choice but to let their kids watch. Unfortunately, I'm in the minority when it comes to these issues and it drives me nuts!

    Posted by Michelle February 25, 10 09:34 AM
  1. We don't generally watch the news on TV, but I do have NPR on in the car and kitchen while I make dinner, and the kids often wander in and listen to the stories. They tend to be a little less graphic and sensational than the TV, but they do spur questions at times. My 10 year old will also pick up the newspaper and read stories that catch his attention. We have dinner table conversations about current events and issues, and make a point of asking the kids what they've heard and what they think. We've always been able to alleviate any concerns, at least so far.

    Posted by akmom February 25, 10 09:37 AM
  1. I have to say I agree that censoring graphic images and headlines is a good idea, but not allowing kids to watch the news in general seems a little overprotective to me. The real question is: Why haven't we as a nation, put more pressure on the media to report information in a way that everyone can hear? Sure there are people who want to see the gore, but is that the majority? I was appauled that the recent young man who lost his life while practicing for the Luge event had the story and pictures of his body being flung from the track on popular news websites and stations. Is this really neccesary? Growing up us a kid, my parents had the news on after dinner. I learned from their interest in the world and local events and we had lots of educational conversations as a result. Teachers include some current events in their curriculum, but it's a parent's job to educate children about the world. This idea that we should shelter our children from everything isn't working. We're raising kids who are less informed, overly coddled and don't have a realistic understanding of the world. What will happen when they're faced with real problems or tragedy? How can we expect them to be prepared for the real world when they've been sheltered all their lives? I believe in balance, but this trend of protecting our children from everything is disturbing to me- kids need to learn ( when lead by responsible adults) and can handle more than we give them credit for!


    Posted by Kay February 25, 10 11:22 AM
  1. In my opinion, it's pretty sad if you think that you're doing your kids any favors by sparing them from watching the news. Stress, scarred? Please.

    Watch the news, then - and I know that this is the real kicker for most people - actually TALK to them about what they're seeing/hearing. Why don't people just suck it up and communicate with their kids as if you're the one who's supposed to be teaching them about what's REALLY going on in the world
    Did a whale kill a trainer - yes it did, these are animals first and foremost, even if they live in an aquarium, they never lose their wild instincts.
    Did tiger bang a whole bunch of women who aren't his wife - yes he did, some people aren't good spouses and have too much fun when they're not at home. But mommy/daddy love, and would never do that to, eachother.
    Did an earthquake happen - yes it did and it's a horrible thing. Let's use this as a learning opportunity that you need emergency plans, some places in the world are naturally unsafe, etc.

    Posted by IK February 25, 10 11:37 AM
  1. TV news is lurid sensational trash, which isn't worthy of viewing for almost anyone anyway. They don't show what is important or relevant, but rather what is most shocking, especially if there's video.

    I'll listen to NPR and read The Economist and some other news and business magazines. For kids, I'd rather get them a weekly news magazine intended for children, like Time For Kids.

    Posted by usalibertarian February 25, 10 11:46 AM
  1. Yes, god forbid our children know what's going on in the world, because kid's worlds should all be sunshine and unicorns.

    Posted by C February 25, 10 11:48 AM
  1. I agree with akmom about NPR. I don't watch tv news mySELF because it's often too distressing. I stay informed with NPR and internet news sites. NPR doesn't soft-pedal if there's something important and disturbing, like the Haiti earthquake, or I remember a story a while ago about rape as a weapon of war in the Congo. But they don't unnecessarily sensationalize. Also, if it's really bad, they warn you ahead of time, and somehow listening to these things makes it less traumatic.

    Posted by Carriefran February 25, 10 12:06 PM
  1. I agree with IK 100%! It's better for the kids to learn about what's going on in the world in the safety of their homes with their parents talking them through it. They're going to hear snippets of news here and there, so you might as well be pro-active and try to control the flow of information (kind of like talking to your kids about sex). But my question is, do the kids REALLY want to sit through a newscast? Or do they overhear something that catches their attention and want to see the story? When I was a kid, I thought the news was boring and couldn't wait for it to be over so we could watch Joker's Wild.

    Posted by chilly February 25, 10 02:48 PM
  1. Oh my goodness, the sarcasm from some of the posters -- as if the only way a child will become knowledgeable is by watching the TV news. Do you actually watch it? It is not about current events, or politics, or climate change, or scientific progress... it is about who murdered whom, which child died recently, what celebrity is having affairs. It is sensational, tabloid-style entertainment disguised as news.

    My kids don't need to see that "news" to be well-informed citizens. Sure, we could watch it together and then process it. We could also, I suppose, watch TMZ live or Entertainment tonight and then process it. The educational value is about the same.

    My kids are both well-informed about current events because we talk about things as a family. We do sometimes listen to NPR together. We read some stories online together.

    The choice is not between "sunshine and unicorns" and well-informed kids. If the news were actually news and not lazy, tabloid journalism, that would be closer to a valid argument. But as the TV news is right now, that is a false dichotomy. There are other, far more valuable ways for children to learn about the world.

    Posted by jlen February 25, 10 04:09 PM
  1. I don't watch TV news. Never did, even when I had a TV, and now since we have no TV and no cable, it's not very easy to watch (we have a tuner, but it's a pain to watch stuff on the computer most days). I read the headlines, but I can go 3-4 days without really reading the news. Somehow, I survive.

    I remember reading a quote from an Amish person once. They basically said something to the effect of "Hearing about 10 different wars that I can do nothing about does not make my life richer." This is pretty much how I feel. I read our local community paper. I research candidates when there is an election. I listen to NPR when I am alone in the car (because otherwise I can't hear it over the kids' chatter). But do I really need to hear all the gory details of every murder, child abuse case, and road accident in the state? Does this make my life better? Why should I help the media profit from the sorrows of others? I can respond to the call for help for Haiti without ever seeing a single picture of a collapsed building or dead body. And if I can be a full and productive citizen without having CNN on 24/7, then I am pretty sure my kids can too.


    Posted by BMS February 25, 10 04:19 PM
  1. Some good points here, on both sides.

    Let me add a plug for the BBC America news program, an hourlong broadcast produced by the BBC for the American audience, ie US and world news, not local UK news. It's informative, well researched, and global, but not quite as dull (sorry!) as PBS news can be. Its on at 7pm on the BBC America cable channel. I imagine a curious 10 or 11 year old could watch it with a parent and really get something out of it....and it includes ZERO of the "Coming up next, how your toothpaste can kill you" stories featured on the local "news."

    Posted by serafina February 26, 10 04:20 PM
  1. I agree, many times in the news adults interpret things wrongly. The news often times provides a wrong image, but leaving things unsaid, and providing info on just one point of view.

    Posted by prin09 April 30, 11 01:26 PM
  1. I read through these comments with people saying that the news is too gory, or the news is too much like a celebrity tabloid or that they listen to NPR to soften the blow. I say, children SHOULD watch the news. And as parents, you should watch it with them and answer their questions. There is not one reason that they shouldn't be allowed to know what's going on around them.

    Who cares if there's a story about a rape? It's happened in your state, maybe even recently. Kids need to know that not everyone in the world is good and that there are bad people out there.
    Same thing with terrorism. Yes, it's bad, but it happens. They are just bad people. Kids need to know that the MAJORITY of people are good, but they may have to come across someone in their life who is not so nice.
    With political news, your child is probably not going to completely comprehend what the heck the reporter is talking about. (Heck, sometimes I don't even know.) That's why you are there to talk through it and help them out. Let them make some decisions. ------- Maybe they'll even grow up to be a consistent voter!...

    If your child doesn't want to watch the news. Ease them into it. They need to have some comprehension of the world around them - even if it's just a small 5 minute a night story.

    Again, you say that news is too gory. What about that movie that's rated R or PG-13 they watched before? Unless you're son or daughter is scared of everything and has nightmares about everything imaginable, it's not too gory for them.

    Posted by taylorw728 July 26, 12 10:14 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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