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Your Child’s Perception of Danger: Information Overload Is Its Own Threat

Father hugs his son to console him

Danger has threatened our lives since the dawn of time. Nature has given all creatures mechanisms to ward off and fight danger and keep safe. The key is to have an accurate perception of a threat and an appropriate response to it. However, in today’s hyper-connected, “always on” environment, some of our mechanisms can backfire – for us and our children.

All of us face two types of threats: external and internal. External threats originate in the outside environment. We face such threats each day simply by getting out of bed. The possibilities of a deadly tornado or terrorist attack like the Boston bombings are examples of external threats. So, too, are threats of layoffs in an economic downturn and the chance that a drunk driver will run over an innocent pedestrian. Internal threats originate inside the body or the mind, taking the form of physical diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease or psychological problems such as insecurity, addictions and phobias. 

The media focuses heavily on external threats. In the days when the newspaper was the only media source in the household, it was customary for adults to read the newspaper first and then pass along any relevant information to their children. I remember making paper planes and boats with hand-me-down newspapers when I was growing up. I rarely looked at the newspaper for its media value. One might argue that the presence of danger was the same then as it is now, with the only difference being that as a child I was protected by my parents from the unnecessary knowledge of it. 

However, with 24-hour news channels on television, and the digital information growth represented by the Internet, instant messaging, Twitter and Facebook, the world can appear to be a small and frightening place – especially to children. Children in today’s world are bombarded with information about danger, whether close to them or far away. Their awareness of the existence of various external threats has multiplied exponentially from the time I was a child. This phenomenon has resulted in a sense that there is more danger in the world than actually exists.

Information viewed or read repeatedly is like a two-headed dragon. It can be a source of anxiety for children and also make them emotionally numb and interfere with their capacity to grasp and sense whether they are really in danger or not. Both of these outcomes are very real dangers themselves. Are our internal threats now worse than our external ones? 

So what’s a parent to do? Given this tricky landscape, it is up to us as parents to help our children navigate this potentially treacherous path: teach them to properly recognize the true dangers that exist without burdening them with undue fear and anxiety. 

Here are some practical tips:

  • Filter  the news based on your children’s ages:
    • Children up to the age of ten should not watch the news alone and any viewing should be limited. Parents should either avoid potentially distressing news entirely if a child is unlikely to hear about it otherwise or discuss important events in age-appropriate language.
    • Tweens and younger teens can watch appropriate news topics, with parents monitoring television and internet usage when possible.
    • The repeated viewing of graphic news can cause psychological trauma. Parents should decipher the threats received from these information sources and put them in proper perspective so that children understand them. 
  • Choose your words carefully and try not to distort the truth. 
  • Children should understand that just because something bad happened to others far away, they are not in any imminent danger. 
  • Tell your children they can talk to you openly if something they hear bothers them. It’s important that they feel free to discuss their concerns and feelings with you. 
  • Provide children with age-appropriate skills to navigate actual threats or emergencies they may encounter. These skills will vary by age and location but provide three important benefits: they help kids focus on actual threats (rather than imaginary or unlikely ones), give them the means to respond appropriately should these dangers arise, and provide them with a sense of agency in a potentially scary world.

As parents, we must all do our best to make our children feel secure. It’s a tough challenge in an increasingly information-laden world, but it can be done honestly and directly.  With guidance, over time your children will develop the capacity to better differentiate between real threats and those that are imagined or exaggerated.

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Preetham Grandhi, M.B. B.S.

Preetham Grandhi, M.B. B.S.

Preetham Grandhi, M.B. B.S. is assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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