Should children be allowed to consume disturbing news?

A child’s temperament is the best guide when it comes to ‘how much is too much’, says expert

Protect them at all costs, or let them know the truth about the harsh realities of life — it can be hard to know what’s best when rearing children.

Some parents choose to try to “shield” their children from the news altogether. But in an online age in which adults and their digital-native children are bombarded with information every hour of the day, is that even possible? Or might parents do more harm than good, if they prevent youngsters from knowing what’s really going on in the world?

Parents can feel conflicted about which approach to take and worried about the information and misinformation to which their children are exposed. “I minimise news,” parent Lisa Bryan, in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, says. “The girls are nine and 12. There is so much violence in the news.” Eva Gaynor, in Stepaside, Dublin, takes the opposite approach, saying she “makes a point of making them read or watch ‘real’ news. TikTok et al and gossip in school are not reliable sources. This takes up a serious amount of time and a lot of our conversations lately.”

Denise Lyons, in Meath, finds that she is learning from her children. Her 13-year-old daughter recently made her aware of who social media influencer Andrew Tate is. “I knew nothing about him. I know the world is full of unsavoury characters, it was more the shock of my 13-year-old daughter bringing him to my attention. My 16-year-old son knew all about him and thankfully had nothing good to say about [him] … I suppose it’s the realisation you can’t shield them from the bad in the world,” she says.


We forget as adults how we process negative news, but children, developmentally, are not in the same mindset as an adult to process such things

—  Mandy

It is a balance that is challenging for educators to get right too. Julie Heffernan is a secondary school teacher in north Dublin who has observed the sources of news the young people she interacts with tend to use.

“The majority don’t keep up with current affairs/news that would be reported on the national broadcaster. They do however know entertainment and celebrity news inside-out from social media platforms.”

She notes that some of the young people she knows “are prone to just reading the headlines and not the entire story”.

This, she says, can leave them “open to fake news or misinformation or misinterpretation of news as they, most of the time, fail to read the full article and will base their knowledge on sometimes misleading, catchy headlines. I also find they know local news better than national news. Things that occur in their local area, for example, crime.”

‘Mandy’ has taught in a Limerick city primary school for many years and requested anonymity. She says she avoids discussing news in class where possible, explaining: “I find they’re very tuned into the news. They know a lot about Ukraine, for example ... there isn’t any filter from home on the news and they bring this to school with them. As the years have gone on I have tended to come to the belief not to talk about current news too much in the classroom as they have it all already from home, and it has in the past overcome them at such a young age, and you can see the anxiety in some of the children when others bring it up.

There are occasions when the news can be particularly difficult for children to process

“In comparison to when I first started teaching, there has been an explosion in particular in the past five or six years to an over-exposure of children to the news. We forget as adults how we process negative news, but children, developmentally, are not in the same mindset as an adult to process such things.

“I find we all need escapism and children need escapism too. The cost-of-living and money worries and homelessness, Covid, etc, etc impacts so many children in our schools when they are at home.”

Child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor says how much news a child should consume depends on the individual.

“My position has always been that the ‘how much’ and ‘too much’ debate depends very much on the child. I think it’s a temperament issue, not an age issue. There are going to be children who are more prone to worrying and overruminating and overthinking too much about news stories, and in that case it’s ‘less is more’.

“Whereas there are ones that are so oblivious to anything happening in the world that you probably actually need to develop a degree of social conscience for them, and direct them towards things that are happening,” Noctor says.

“The balance is obviously really hard to strike between wanting a child to be socially conscious but not wanting them up all night ruminating over life crises, or things that are happening in the world, so for that reason I think temperament is the best guide towards how much is too much.”

Noctor says leaving it to children to manage and process news stories they hear themselves, or having discussions with them about it, depends on the particular story.

“I remember the Ariana Grande bombing in Manchester and lots of small kids came to me with a completely skewed idea around terrorism and Isis, so they’d obviously heard it from the schoolyard and not from a responsible adult. For those bigger issues maybe there is a need to describe and discuss those things with them.”

There are occasions when the news can be particularly difficult for children to process and Noctor says adults need to be especially mindful in these cases.

We always use factual language, but neutral language. We’re careful with the images we use, careful with the language we use — no jargon

—  Avril Hoare

Managing the places where children access news, as well as the sort of news they access, can be tricky, Noctor adds.

“Children don’t read newspapers and they don’t tend to listen to news bulletins. It tends to be from peers and social media, and we know with TikTok and all that stuff what is more popular is what gets the wider reach, rather than what is truth. And so there is a real issue around what is truth.

“Generally the more extreme views will be the ones that will gain more online traction, become more viral, so children are more likely to hear the extreme side of things than they are to hear measured opinions. TikTok and online platforms are not a reliable source but they are the source that they go to first.”

RTÉ’s TV news programme for children, news2day, is marking 20 years on air this month. Editors Avril Hoare and Anne-Marie Smyth say their motto when presenting news to children is “truth and hope”.

News2day is broadcast from the same studio as all other RTÉ news programmes, Hoare says. “We are very much part of the newsroom.” As well as covering national and global stories, the news2day team goes into classrooms to hear directly from children about the issues that concern them.

“News impacts children. We saw that in a way as never before with Covid, because there was never a story that hit children as directly. Covid impacted children all around the world,” Hoare says.

Covering particularly difficult stories like the war in Ukraine involves a careful approach. “We had done explainers on the tensions between Russia and Ukraine in the run-up to that, explaining what was going on,” Smyth says. “When we came back on air after mid-term break and the invasion had happened we explained what had happened: what an invasion was, how two neighbouring countries can enter into a conflict like that. We pointed out that most countries were against the invasion and were trying to support Ukraine and that Ireland was part of that. The following day we did a piece on how to deal with upsetting news.”

Hoare says: “We always use factual language, but neutral language. We’re careful with the images we use, careful with the language we use — no jargon — and we often get adults going: ‘I really learned a lot from that explainer’. We’re giving the facts in a way that children can understand.”

Smyth continues: “We try to find ways, even if it’s a really sad story, of showing the positivity within that. A lot of things that make news are because they’re unusual. So bad things are unusual, that’s why they make the news. You’re looking for the positive in the story, where are the people that are helping.”

Because of the digital age of consent, news2day is not on TikTok or Snapchat, but the editors say they are aware many children are getting their news this way. As parents as well as journalists, Hoare and Smyth say they are well versed in reminding their own children over the years to always check their sources.

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family