Embedded reporters, 24- hour news, breaking news bulletins inserted in regular programming: Americans have never before had such real-time and constant exposure to the realities of war.
But there may be unintended consequences. Some adults find images of war to be overwhelming, and children are even more likely to experience negative impact from exposure to war coverage on television.
There is compelling research that indicates that children in all age groups may experience immediate and lingering fright responses after viewing violent images, both those that are real-life, as in television coverage, and those that are purely entertainment-driven, such as films or television programs.
These fright responses appear as nightmares, excessive worry, and an unwillingness to participate in activities related to those portrayed as being associated with violence (for example, viewing a depiction of a shooting at a mall may make a child unwilling to go to a local mall). Some children may develop unusual rituals whose underlying motivation is to protect them from worry.
If these rituals are relatively harmless and short-lived (like needing to have the parent read the same bedtime story every night for two weeks), they can be considered to be reasonable coping methods. If rituals interfere with daily life or are persistent (such as needing to check and recheck to see if an electric appliance has been turned off for three weeks), they may represent a more severe stress reaction which requires professional intervention.
There have also been reports that some children have developed post-traumatic stress disorder after viewing real-life violent events on TV. This disabling condition involves periodic re-experiencing of the distressing event and requires psychological treatment.
Other research suggests that there is a group of children who become desensitized to violence in relation to their exposure to real-life media or to unreal entertainment violence. Televised images of war may seem unreal to some children, and perhaps this is a way of defending against the worry and sadness that could occur if one actually felt the impact of each casualty and wound.
But some children seem to experience the violent images of war as just another video game or movie, and their statements about the victims may reflect this desensitization.
For example, “It's no big deal, just kill them, kill them all!” If children make callous statements about the war which suggest desensitization, then parents should gently remind them of the reality of the war, guiding them to some appreciation for the sometimes horrible consequences for the people of Iraq and for American and other coalition soldiers.
Children are not uniformly susceptible to negative impact. Age and level of maturity are key factors parents should consider when evaluating how much exposure to televised war coverage is right for their child.
Beginning with the youngest potential viewers, parents may not realize how much of their emotional reaction to television is absorbed by their infants. If parents find war scenes disturbing, so will infants. It may be best to put the baby to bed and then watch the late news. Toddlers and preschoolers often have trouble separating fantasy from reality. They are likely to misinterpret images of war, possibly thinking that these events are happening nearby.
This can lead to increased anxiety that may appear as nightmares or increased clinging to parents. Children this age should not be exposed to televised images of war.
Younger school-aged children, up to about ages 8 to 10, may also misinterpret what they see and be disturbed and anxious. Their exposure should be highly restricted, with no TV war coverage for less mature or more emotionally sensitive children in this age group.
Older school-aged children may ask to watch television coverage, and this is best done in small doses with parents available to answer questions and deal with emotional reactions to troubling images. Some children may be confused about how adults can tell them to resolve problems without violence, while supporting the current war.
Parents may need to help children understand that the government preferred nonviolent solutions, but these did not work out. Adolescents are likely to watch war coverage on their own, and as with all emotions at this developmental level, their reactions may be hard to read.
One strategy is to ask what their friends think about the war. Adolescents may ask parents questions that suggest they are surprisingly uninformed. Parents should patiently answer, as this will indicate a willingness to discuss the topic. However, trying to force an adolescent to discuss reactions to images of war will not work.
Parents have many options to help their child cope with the reality of war. Children most need to feel that they are safe. Maintaining normal daily routines will help establish a sense of safety.
Openly acknowledging and discussing everyone's feelings of distress will also help. Coping with the reality of war should involve taking positive action to support both the troops and the Iraqi citizens. Parents should find age-appropriate ways for children to contribute to positive efforts.
For example, children can write letters or emails to soldiers, do chores to raise money for small gifts for soldiers, or contribute to international aid groups such as the International Red Cross or United Nations' Children's Fund. And, of course, restricting or monitoring children's exposure to the images of war will prevent some children from being overwhelmed and others from becoming further desensitized.
Dr. Jeanne Funk is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo.