TV News Is Scaring
And Damaging
American Children
By Andrew Quinn
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - American children grow up in a culture where violence is pervasive in movies, television and even song lyrics. But researchers reported Monday that many children trace their fears about life to one key source: television news. ``What we call news has become so sensational,'' said Joanne Cantor, a psychologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. ``It's all the news that's fit to terrify.'' Cantor and Barbara Wilson of the University of California-Santa Barbara told a meeting of the American Psychological Association here that fresh research indicated that television news, particularly local news programs, can lead to elevated fears among children. Pointing to the explosive growth of television news outlets, and a trend toward more graphic pictures of violence and mayhem, the two psychologists said television news should be closely monitored by parents and teachers for its ``fright factor'' for young children. Specifically, they argued that new ``V-chip'' technology aimed at allowing parents to screen out TV programs deemed inappropriate for children should be extended to cover news broadcasts -- which under the current V-chip proposal would be exempt. ``As children begin to understand the differences between fantasy and reality, the news becomes more frightening,'' Cantor said. ``These fright reactions can be intense and debilitating.'' Much of the fright revolves around stories that children feel are close to their lives. Coverage of the recent rash of U.S. school shootings and the murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey can lead children into exaggerated fears for their own safety, the researchers said. While younger children are often terrified by pictures of natural disasters, wars and famine, older children focus their fears on stories of crime and violence -- particularly when they are directed at children. ``Children need to have some reasonable amount of information about the dangers that are important to them,'' Wilson said. ``But what they are getting is exaggerated fears of things that are not necessarily the dangers they are going to encounter.''

In one recent study conducted among primary school children in Santa Barbara, Wilson found that 51 percent could describe in detail a recent television news story that had frightened them -- ranging from gang violence to natural disasters. These fears are amplified by the fact that children, much more than adults, are likely to believe what they see on the television news. In Wilson's study, a full 94 percent of the children said they believed television news was truthful all or most of the time. ``There is a very high perceived reality for TV news among kids,'' Wilson said. Cantor said studies like Wilson's indicated that violent television news stories caused heightened and often unrealistic fears among children, leading them for example to overestimate the murder rate in a city like Los Angeles. And she added that many parents found it difficult to deal with their children's fears -- which, after all, were based at least in part on real threats. ``One of the problems is that you cannot tell children it's not real,'' said Cantor, whose new book ``Mommy, I'm Scared'' is aimed at helping parents deal with their children's fears. ``The most you can do is put a safe sort of spin on a story.'' Cantor said one way out of the problem would be to extend V-chip technology to cover news broadcasts. While current proposals approved by the Federal Communications Commission would allow programs to be screened based on a set of voluntary ratings created by broadcasters, there has been strong opposition to extending these ratings to news. ``I am not someone who believes that children should be shielded from everything,'' Cantor said. ``But television news just isn't the best way for children to learn about the world.''