Are Kids Being Over-exposed to Media Violence?

by H’vovi Bhagwagar

Eight-year-old Suhaana came home from school one afternoon. Her mother was busy preparing a snack for her in the kitchen. Suhaana picked up her mom’s cellphone to read a few jokes or see a couple of pictures her mother may have received from the various Whatsapp groups she was on. The photo of a small Syrian child who had washed up on a beach flashed on the phone, shocking little Suhaana. That night she had bad dreams.

Young minds are like clay and exposure to trauma can mould children for life. Of late, images of a toddler washed up on a beach, another child being assaulted by a toy-car attendant and the continuous coverage of the gruesome murder in an Indian media family have flooded our senses. A recent report by the Child Trauma Academy showed that the average 18-year-old in the United States will have viewed 2,00,000 acts of violence on television. Children exposed to such events and images can be at risk for vicarious traumathe negative psychological reactions following indirect exposure to traumatised people.

The American Psychological Association says that there are three major effects of watching violence in the media:

1. Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.
2. Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
3. Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or hurtful ways toward others.

How Much Can We Protect Our Children?
The experiences children go through impact them depending on the kind of effort their parents or caregivers put in, in explaining these situations. Here's what you can do to prevent adverse impact:

Limit Smartphone Access: Avoid giving children unlimited access to phones, especially when one cannot control the material that is sent via WhatsApp, Facebook and other social networks. Keep a password on your phone, laptop and other devices and allow children access under supervision. Set limits with friends/ groups to stop posting disturbing images. Block those who frequently violate these norms.

Monitor Television and Newspapers: Parents have no control over what’s being shared on these public forums. Monitoring what your child reads and watches is very important. If possible, watch the news along with your children so you can debrief them and normalise any disturbing material.

Watch Your Body Language: Children pick up and imbibe parents’ anxiety so make sure that the little eyes watching you do not see you get over-emotional about a news event. On the other hand, don’t try to cover up your feelings with false cheer or by diverting the topic. That can be equally confusing to the child.  

Teach Self-soothing: Explain to kids that you are upset but try to deal with it by doing things to distract and calm yourself down. “I was feeling upset with that (picture) but went for a walk and it helped.” Modelling self-soothing as a natural way to help oneself calm down can be an important lesson to teach kids.

Messages of Normalcy: Describe the world to your child as a generally safe place, with some unsafe events. Don’t give children the idea that they should not explore the world or stay away from minor risks. Such messages can create an anxious child.

Encourage Expression: Play games with children that let you know what they are thinking. Young ones can tell you what they feel through simple stick figure drawings. Older kids need space and time to express. Adolescents can be encouraged to write articles for the school paper expressing their thoughts about current affairs as an outlet for their emotions.

Hvovi Bhagwagar is a clinical psychologist and life skills consultant with a private practice at Powai, Mumbai. She specialises in psychological trauma and stress related issues. To reach her, log on to www.hvovikesaath.com

(Image courtesy Thinkstock)

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