seal  Purdue News

August 11, 2004

Prof: Iraq images, terrorist alerts can be upsetting for children, adults

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – If people watch daily news coverage of war-like events, it can affect them more than watching a terrifying horror movie over and over again, says a Purdue University communication expert.

"Don't underestimate the emotional impact that news coverage of terror and war can have on adults, children and families alike," says Glenn Sparks, who studies mass media effects. "Most Americans know that a traumatic event, such as 9/11, can take an emotional toll on the family. But people need to realize that it doesn't have to be a traumatic event to produce unhealthy responses. News coverage, and especially repetitive coverage of terrorist alerts, war, hostages and violence, can have an effect on family life."

War images are more frightening than people may realize, says Sparks, who has a chapter in "Global Media Go to War: The Role of News and Entertainment Media During the 2003 Iraq War," published by Marquette Books this summer. His essay, co-authored with therapist and cultural analyst Will Miller, is titled "News Coverage of the War in Iraq: Cognitive and Emotional Consequences for Viewers."

The emotional impact of news coverage on children or adults is not always that obvious. Sparks says to look for signs of distress related to sleep habits, such as changes in bedtime or routine, and sleep patterns.

"If a child begins to want to sleep with the light on, consider the media images the child is exposed to," Sparks says. "Adults also can experience the same symptoms. In fact, sometimes adults are not even aware that they have been affected by media coverage, and unless they start to think about it, they may not be aware of what changed."

Adults choose to handle frightful media images different ways, Sparks says. Some adults may seek distractions and avoid coverage of current events, watching more sitcoms instead. Others will cope by watching and reading everything they can about the tragedy because it makes them feel better to have that information. Sparks says both coping strategies can work effectively, because each person has his or her own way of handling the situation. However, children may need some in help coping with exposure.

"The initial invasion of Iraq may be over, but the scenes of terror and violence from the prison scandal to hostages and military deaths can upset children," Sparks says. "Parents need to monitor the content and the amount of television that their child is watching. Adults also need to evaluate how the events are affecting children."

Media coverage of violence, as well as of natural disasters, is very upsetting for children, particularly those from about 7-11 years old, Sparks says. Children at these ages don't have much experience dealing with intense emotional events. Younger children don't have a good understanding of the remote possibility of these events – bombings or killings – actually happening in their communities. Parents often make the mistake of thinking that the older a child is, the more he or she can handle, Sparks says.

"Parents often have good intentions to expose their children to global and current events, but all children may not be ready to handle viewing such events," Sparks says. "Don't have the television on routinely in the background, be selective about your viewing and have an idea of what kinds of images may appear with the stories."

Sparks recommends that parents don't allow their children to watch non-stop news coverage. Instead, parents should watch with their children.

"Exposure is inevitable, so parents should be ready to talk to their children about the images on television," Sparks said. "Give children an opportunity to ask questions, and be available to explain and comfort."

The news media are thinking mainly about their adult viewers and not focusing so much on the fact that there children – many without adult supervision – in their audience, Sparks says. In some stories, such as the prison abuse coverage, some networks warned in advance that their coverage contained scenes that could be offensive.

"We need to see more warnings like those so parents can do a better job monitoring their children's exposure," Sparks says. "But even warnings don't help if children are watching without supervision."

Sparks studies anxiety responses of frightening or suspenseful mass media, as well as the effects of television viewing on children and scary movies on people. Sparks and Miller also co-authored "Refrigerator Rights," a book that analyzes adult relationships.

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723,

Source: Glenn Sparks, (765) 494-3316,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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