The 24-hour news cycle has transformed how we receive news on large-scale events and disasters – like this summer’s bushfires. We’re constantly switched on and tuned into news updates on our phones, televisions, and even in-home smart devices.
At times, it can seem as though there is no escape from the harrowing images and stories shown in the media. Even for adults, the stories emerging from the bushfire zones can be confronting. For children, they’re probably terrifying.
With research evidence suggesting that both children adults are affected emotionally and mentally by media coverage of disasters, emergencies and conflict situations, it can beg the question as to whether the reports we see are more of a hindrance than a help. It can also leave us wondering – what effect is this information having on our kids?
An Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Canberra, Dr Zinnia Mevawalla says that there are many ways to ensure that children are not overwhelmed by what they hear and see in the media.
Zinnia advises that children as young as a week old can sense and respond to adults’ distress. For this reason, among others, she says that children under the age of two shouldn’t be watching television.
“Brain science and the national screen-time guidelines tell us that children should not be watching television before the age of two years,” she said.
“Later, as children enter preschool years, they may also begin to become upset and worried by the things they see on news and television – so parents and caregivers should monitor their screen time closely.”
As a parent, it can be difficult to know the right approach to take when it comes to supporting and educating children on the bushfire crisis. Finding an appropriate balance between ensuring children are educated and aware of national issues, while providing protection from traumatic visuals and information can be a fine line.
Zinnia agrees that it can be tough to get right.
“It’s important for all of us to be well-informed, but it might also be important (for adults and children alike!) to take a break from coverage of situations like the bushfires,” she said.
“It is important that as adults, we regulate children’s exposure to these events in the media.”
There is agreement among experts that being open with children and having age-appropriate, honest discussions is the best way to ensure they understand the information they are hearing and seeing.
For parents, setting aside a time where you can open the lines of communication with your child, listen to their concerns, and monitor their reactions is the best course of action. Acknowledging their fears can help to normalise their feelings and provide comfort to worried children. Adults can also provide children with coping strategies like talking to a friend or hugging someone.
Getting children involved in activities such as fundraising and volunteering can also provide many benefits when it comes to getting through trauma.
“Offering children avenues to help others can be an empowering experience, and can help them feel more confident,” said Zinnia.
“Providing opportunities for children to see the ‘good things’ – like everyday people and communities helping each other out and acting in ways that are generous in the aftermath of an emergency or disaster situation, can help them feel reassured.”
If you are concerned about your child’s health or wellbeing in the wake of the bushfire crisis, Zinnia advises consulting your family GP.
“Importantly, where families are concerned about the level of anxiety surrounding their children’s fears, they should consult a doctor,” she said.
Words by Elly Mackay. Photo by Megan Reeder-Hope.