Over 100 mass shootings have taken place in the U.S. since the rampage in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022. Not a single week in 2022 has passed without at least four mass shootings.
With gun violence, war and other tragedies in the news, children are often exposed to scary images and information.
Parents and caregivers are faced with the dilemma of wondering how to speak with their children about the unspeakable. How can adults help children feel safe when imagery about tragedies abounds throughout the media?
We are communication scholars who specialize in children and media. We have extensively studied children’s views of and responses to violence in the media. Our research findings and those of other scholars offer insights into how news can contribute to children’s fears and on how to help children cope.
Surrounded by news and information
In an era of 24-hour news coverage, it is likely that children will come across disturbing news content. For some kids, this exposure is deliberate. Teenagers report that they find it important to follow current events. And more than half of teens get their news from social media and slightly fewer get their news from YouTube.
Children under 12 show little interest in the news, yet many still encounter it. Young children’s news exposure is almost always accidental, either through background television viewing or through family discussions of current events.
No matter how much parents or caregivers try to shield children, then, they are likely to come upon the news.
The news as a catalyst for fear
Several studies have examined children’s fear responses to news. Six months after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Boston-area parents reported that children who viewed more news coverage on the day of the attack were more likely to display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, have behavior problems and show hyperactivity and/or inattention than children who watched less news.
More recently, an international survey of over 4,000 9-to-13-year-olds from 42 countries found that over half of the children were scared by news stories about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fear and anxiety can also be spurred by exposure to news events that are more commonplace. In a 2012 study of elementary school children in California, nearly half of them said they saw something on the news that made them scared. The news stories that were most frequently mentioned were natural disasters, kidnappings and burglaries.
Sadly, we live in a country where gun violence is common. A 2022 study found that children’s exposure to news coverage of mass shootings not only made them afraid for their personal safety, but was correlated with the belief that their school and society at large were dangerous.
Whether catastrophic or common, fear reactions endure. A survey of college students found that 50% of them could remember a specific news story that they had seen during childhood that frightened, worried or upset them. The effects included feeling scared and being unable to sleep. And 7% of participants said they were still frightened of that event at their present college age.