Helping children weather the storm from the news cloud

January 23, 2017 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

When I was in elementary school, the Cold War was all the rage.

We had Red Dawn, Top Gun and The Day After.  We had Mike and the Mechanics asking if we could hear them running. We had Nina Hagen standing pretty in the dust that was a city.

One rainy day our local daily newspaper ran an in-depth feature on what would happen if a nuclear warhead detonated over The Egg at the Empire State Plaza. There was a blast radius map and some detailed descriptions. It was just the sort of thing a young news junkie enjoyed reading over a bowl of Cheerios.

Because it was such a dreary day, playtime for me and my fellow fifth-grade students was indoors in the gymnasium. I had gathered several of my classmates and shared with them what I had learned about how a nuclear detonation in Albany would unfold.

I can’t recall exactly what I said to them, but it went something like this:

“At up to a mile from the blast, your skin will melt off your face! Windows will blow out up to five miles away! Here at our school the fallout will hit us in less than hour!”

The next day I had to visit the principal.

I can’t recall exactly what was said then either, but it went something like this:

“Stop scaring the other students.”

Fortunately, the Berlin Wall fell just a few years later. The Cold War was over.  Of course, some things never change. Wars – cold or hot – seem to always be replaced by other wars and the news cycle is always hungry.

But one thing that has changed is the way news is presented to us and the way we consume it. Newspapers no longer – or very rarely – get passed around the breakfast table.  The influence of the network evening news has waned as on-demand, 24-7 cable news channels emerged. Then, there was the Internet. Social media and smart phones have profoundly altered the landscape in more recent years.

There is no complete news package anymore.  Our consumption of news is no longer bound by time and place. The news is a cloud surrounding all of us. Some of us seek out information. Some of us select the information we want and have it delivered to us the way we want. Some of us tune most of it out. Some of us tune it all out.

But our children also live in this cloud.

This makes me wonder how much my six-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter are picking up on in terms of events in our town and events in the world? Is what they are hearing and seeing affecting them the way my tales of impending atomic doom affected my classmates?

Parent Today explored this in a post from 2011 we have periodically redistributed, particularly after major tragic events.

But what about the day-to-day news cycle? What about the cloud? My children don’t have smart phones. They aren’t on social media. How much are they actually absorbing?

I listen to NPR on my morning and afternoon commutes, often with my kids in the car. I have found myself reaching more and more to turn down the volume dial when disturbing news was broadcast.

I think this began after my daughter asked me one day, “Where is Syria?”

We’re also exiting a presidential election cycle that has been anything but dull, with many issues touching deep cultural and societal divides in the country and often among our friends and family.

Dr. Jim Bercovitz is a psychologist who works with children and adolescents at Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES.  Bercovitz said the level at which children tune into news and how they process it varies much like it does with adults.

The number one concern for children, particularly younger children, is their sense of safety.

“It is important for parents to reassure children about the safety of the family,” Bercovitz said. “In the case of violence in the community or in the world, kids worry about the safety of their parents and themselves.”

Context is also critical, he said.

“It is important to help children understand the news. Parents can break down the actual, complicated features of events and situations to make them understandable,” Bercovitz said.

Bercovitz points out that it isn’t just news that is in the cloud. There is advertising and a seemingly infinite amount of other information.

“It’s an important lesson for children to learn that people are trying to sell things or influence opinion for a variety of reasons,” Bercovitz said.

In the end, one way to deal with this concern is pretty simple. Talk to your children. Talk to them about the news. Talk to them about the advertising they might see or hear. Talk to them about the subjects and themes they encounter in the cloud. It could be a way to plant a yearning for knowledge of the wider world in younger children and hone some healthy skepticism they will need later in life.

In addition to asking more questions about what she is hearing on the radio during our commutes, I have seen my daughter browsing through our weekly hometown newspaper. And that makes me happy, even if the news isn’t always so.

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 6-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

Copyright ©2016 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission

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