Dreamworld has dominated the news cycle for the past week. Children are not normally interested in the news. They complain about how ‘boring’ it is when we wish to listen to it or watch it. But the tragedy has exploded into their conversations. They are attempting to comprehend how something so emotionally wrenching can happen at the same place so many of them have enjoyed delightful experiences and savoured memories.
Dreamworld is close to home for many of us – if not geographically, then psychologically and emotionally. We’ve taken our kids there. They’ve ridden that ride. They can relate to this incident in ways that they can’t with most news stories, which seem more abstract and distant to them.
What is the psychological impact of this news on our children? On us? And is it any different to the horrible news that feeds into our living rooms, our cars, and onto our screens 24/7?
Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor at the University of Texas–San Antonio and leading researcher on the connection between media consumption and stress suggests that in a competitive media environment, news programs are in an all-out war with one another for viewers, and so they ramp up and sensationalise stories that are already heartbreaking. Most of us know this. But what many people do not know is that science suggests ongoing exposure to this type of news can lead to significant negative outcomes for adults and children.
Before we consider these outcomes, we need to be careful about confusing correlation and causation. While awful news could be leaving us feeling lousy, depressed, stressed, or anxious, it might be that people who feel bad actually seek sad news. Depression may cause news watching, rather than news-watching causing depression. We can’t be certain of the direction of the relationship.
What is clear is that as people, young or old, are exposed to this kind of news content, they experience a corresponding sense of hopelessness. The world seems out of control and they become worried that no matter what they do, bad things are coming.
This is unhealthy – even more for kids than for adults. For our children to flourish, they need to believe that the world is a safe, predictable place. They need to see good in the world so they can have hope in a positive future. This mindset drives curiosity, exploration, and healthy development.
I explained this in an interview on the TODAY show with Karl Stefanovic. He replied, ‘But the world is not safe or predictable.’ My reply was that whether it actually is or isn’t is irrelevant. It is what our children believe that matters. Ongoing exposure to news stories makes them believe that it is not, and they lose hope.
Research also tells us that as hope is slowly depleted, bad news leaves us (and our children) feeling helpless. If there’s no hope, why try?
These devastating mindsets are commonly experienced by those who consume the news a lot. Cynicism becomes pervasive. People feel jaded, sighing in resignation when another politician is found to be corrupt, another attack occurs in the Middle East, another life is senselessly taken, and so on.
And these hopeless, helpless mindsets can cripple our children. They see a story like Dreamworld and their worldview changes. Something that seemed so safe and happy now arouses anxiety. Questions, fears, and concerns invade their imaginations.
How can we fight back against the anxiety-inducing awfulness of the news cycle, and the potential hopelessness, helplessness, and desensitisation that can challenge our children?
The most obvious answer is to simply ‘turn it off’. But it isn’t realistic to think we can cocoon our children from bad news – especially when it is so all-pervasive.
Beyond that, the answers become a little more nuanced. But mindfully discussing these next ideas with our children can help them process and respond maturely and positively – with resilience – to bad news.
First, talk about the reality of what happened. We can’t deny the awfulness of the story, nor should we blithely and ignorantly respond with “oh well”, or the even more unrealistic, “just be positive”. Let your children know this stuff is sad. Sit with the horribleness. Be ok with the grieving, at whatever level.
Second, guide your children to consciously focus on the clear evidence that news producers look for extremely bad things to tell us about. The world is not as bad as the news makes it look. But media (including social media) have tremendous incentives to broadcast the worst information they can.
Third, point out that news is only news because of its unusual nature. If a person wakes up, drives to school or work, comes home, eats, and goes to bed, no one thinks that’s interesting or unusual. It’s not “news”. But that’s life for most people most days.
Fourth, focus on what will happen now. Inquiries and investigations will be held. Systems and processes will be improved. People will be safer. (At least, that’s what we hope).
Fifth, point out the way bad things often bring out the best in people. Communities collaborate, seeking to serve those who lose so much. People become open to helping.
Finally, seek great stories. Websites like Hopeful Headlines make the news a joy to read. For every tragedy, there are so many miracles. (And that often includes miracles within tragedies.) These stories build hope, they strengthen positivity and gratitude, and they elevate all of us.