Protecting Children From Extreme Screen Violence

Last week, my wife and I were enjoying coffee in our local diner when we spotted a group of four children huddled around their father’s iPhone.

A boy, about 8 years old, looked up, intently studying one of the big TV screens over his table, just as one of the commentators rehashed the details of the latest beheading. You could clearly see two men on screen: one in orange, and one dressed in black with a knife.

I was horrified. The sound was muted but the words, in clear 4-inch font, declared, “Another Beheading Video Posted.” The way the boy stopped playing with the phone and quietly stared was chilling, and it inspired this article.

There’s no way I could ever know what he was thinking, but his body language told me that some big questions may be spinning around in his young mind. His busy dad—whom I don’t know, but to whom I dedicate this article—was oblivious to the fact that the seeds of a nightmare may have just been planted in his son. Worse, the boy was holding a mobile device that could actually play the beheading video advertised by CNN’s 24-hour news service.

We know this: screens are getting bigger and news is getting more intense—even more intense than the 9/11 days. But children still develop the same way, and we all have to live with the reality that extremely graphic content has become as common as the maple syrup in our local diner. Unless we choose to give up pancakes, we can’t escape.

And then there’s YouTube, which is not supposed to be for children younger than 13. But you’re not supposed to tear the tags off your new mattress either. YouTube is extremely popular among young children, who use it to watch things like “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” But there are also 148,000 beheading-related videos on YouTube. Yes, I searched, and no, I couldn’t watch.

What can we do?

“Our children need us to spend time with them—away from the frightening images on the screen.” -Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers gave a great deal of thought to screen violence, especially after 9/11.  Although TVs were smaller, his advice—some of which is excerpted here—still rings true.

Fred advised parents (and, I might add, restaurant owners) to turn off the TV when children are around, especially when there’s a breaking story, and to honestly acknowledge that as adults, we also struggle with our own feelings.

“It’s easy to allow ourselves to get drawn into watching televised news of a crisis for hours. . . . We help our children and ourselves if we’re able to limit our own television viewing,” he said. “Our children need us to spend time with them—away from the frightening images on the screen.”

Fred also educated parents and caregivers on how young children cope with feelings of fear and anxiety. “When children are scared and anxious,” he wrote, “they might become more dependent, clingy, and afraid to go to bed at night. Whining, aggressive behavior, or toilet ‘accidents’ may be their way of asking for more comfort from the important adults in their lives.”

Maurice Sendak once said “Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are.”

Children are continually watching and learning, and they need to construct their own meaning. So to balance this perspective, you might admit to your children that you feel bad about those images, too, and that you have chosen not to watch the videos.

Fred spoke of the importance of empathizing with children and helping them find constructive things to do with their feelings. “This way, we’ll be giving them useful tools that will serve them all their life, and help them to become the worlds’ future peacemakers—the world’s future helpers.”

A Digital Parents Survival Guide

• Check your browser’s cache to see what websites your children have visited recently. Ignorance is not bliss these days. But be careful. Once you’ve eroded your child’s trust, it’s difficult to get it back. You may choose to tell your children that you know how to snoop, which, along with random screen checks, may be enough to keep them accountable. On an iPad, go to SETTINGS > GENERAL > ADVANCED > WEBSITE DATA. You can see a list of sites your child has visited.

• Give yourself a YouTube settings crash course. On an iPad, start the YouTube app and find the control sidebar. Check the HISTORY and then touch the SETTINGS (the little gear icon). Make sure the filter setting is on STRICT.

• Set up your restrictions if you want to block browser or YouTube access altogether behind a four-digit code. On an iPad, go to GENERAL > RESTRICTIONS, enter your code, and toggle on/off access to things such as YouTube.

Read more of Fred’s thoughts on screen violence at the Fred Rogers Company or watch him talk about tragic events in the news in this video.


Top photo: Image taken with my phone on September 13, 2014, at the Country Griddle in Flemington, New Jersey. CNN is playing in the background.

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