Should you watch the news with your toddler?

From Syrian bombings and terror attacks to buffoons like Donald Trump, what effect are the images on the TV news having on your toddler?

Father and mother on sofa watching television

Donald Trump, the leader of the free world and a man with skin so orange only Americans could make a cheese that matches its hue, is someone who scares a lot of sensible adults. But it turns out he’s quite alarming to small children, too.

More than one parent I know reports that on seeing Trump on television their small toddlers will shout his name, followed by unkind words like “dumb” or “stupid” and even the occasional expletive.

Yes, even children under the age of three are being affected by his existence, although it’s possible they think he’s just a muppet.

With his garbled English and flying eyebrows he resembles the Swedish chef, while his talk of “Rocket Man” and big red buttons brings to mind Fozzie Bear.

Trump is certainly a constant on our TV screens, particularly if you watch the news with your children around, but he’s far from the most frightening thing on there. And he’s probably not the only thing that makes you wonder whether your children should be watching at dinner time.

Because what you learn very quickly about children is that they fall utterly in the thrall of television, from a very young age, and that whatever is on it at any given time — even lawn bowling — will attract their complete and devoted attention.

While I remember growing up in a house where watching the 7pm news was pretty much the moment of gravity around which evening family time orbited, the news bulletins we’re now assailed by — with far more regularity — seem to be more colourful. If you had to pick one, it would probably be a bloody red, sadly.

While the time will come soon enough where watching the news with an older child leads to many questions that are hugely difficult to answer, even letting your very young children watch such disturbing images is something that many parents now consider a no-no.

From hired vans mowing people down in the streets of Europe to refugees being treated horribly in our names in Nauru to violence in Syria, far-right rallies in Germany, and machine-gun attacks in Paris, there’s an awful lot that’s disturbing on our daily news.

One thing that’s changed is that almost nothing happens, anywhere, these days without a camera — either a security one, a mobile phone or an actual news crew — being on hand to capture it.

So we’re simply being served up a lot more disturbing footage. A flood in a faraway country isn’t just a horrible humanitarian headline now, it’s a visceral visual experience in living (and dying) colour.

And, as a report into violence on TV by the Australian Institute of Criminology points out, “violence on the news has more impact than dramatised depictions precisely because it is real and that television news reportage magnifies, rather than mirrors, people’s perceptions about the amount of violence in the world today”.

For a toddler, of course, the difference between real and fictional violence matters not, it’s the upsetting images that are the big problem.

Reality TV

Perhaps the most disturbing thing to consider about what the TV news might be doing to the mind of your tiny, innocent child, is pointed out by The Raising Children Network — “babies and toddlers can’t tell the difference between TV and real life until they’re about 18 months old”.

Largely for that reason, the well-respected site suggests that children under 18 months have no screen time at all, other than Skype or video chat, while children aged from 18 months to two years should watch only “high-quality programs” (so, not the news) or apps, with an adult.

Apparently babies and toddlers are attracted to the light and movement they see on TV, even if they can’t work out what it means, and that they might recognise familiar characters and voices on the screen after seeing them or hearing them repeatedly. Which is how our Trump-mocking toddlers were made.

The bigger your kids get, of course, the bigger the problem becomes, with preschoolers prone to act out and copy any violence they see on TV. And don’t even get us started on leaving them alone in the room with the modern versions of MTV. Soft porn by stealth, all of it.

Turning them off

Child psychologist Kirrilie Smout suggests that television probably isn’t the best medium to choose to start educating your children about the world, via the news, because “what we do know is that images are harder to handle than words,” she says.

“So it’s not about not telling our kids what’s happening, it’s about limiting the access that they have to the imagery until they can handle that.”

Smout suggests that getting your news through the radio is far less dangerous to your children’s mental health, and far more appropriate.

When they are old enough to start engaging with the world, she recommends ABC’s Behind The News, which presents current affairs in a kid-friendly format.

Blame the media (or not)

It’s quite a modern phenomenon, and a Trump-led one, to blame the news media — or the Enemy of the People — for everything, but news organisations would no doubt claim they’re only reporting the world as it is today.

What you can argue over, and people have been doing it for years, is whether a 6pm, or even 7pm, news slot makes any sense. The kind of fictional violence that would not be allowed to broadcast before children’s bedtimes is fair game, of course, if it actually happened for real and there were cameras there to shoot it.

A UNESCO Symposium on the impact of violence in the mass media found, however, that violence already existed before the media came along.

“Although the media should not be absolved from their responsibilities, it would be misleading to regard them as the roots of violent behaviour.

These are more likely to be found in the frustration engendered by such factors as inequality, social injustice, overcrowding, urbanisation and so on.”

That’s what the UNESCO folks found, apparently, way back in 1970. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Although, to be fair, Trump is quite unique, and the amount he seems to be on the TV in our house is a worry, because just last week my daughter pointed out that “he’s the dumb one, with the tiny little hands”. And she doesn’t even watch The Muppets.

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