July 18, 2024
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Seeing and Believing: The Impact Of Graphic (News) Imagery on a Child’s Brain

Emotional wellbeing and Torah values: Practical perspectives from Chai Lifeline.

My children want to know about world events, and being children, they prefer watching the news over reading articles. When there is a tragedy or an accident or a frightening news item, I notice that even some of the frum online media will show images of accidents, of bloodshed and other graphic stories. Is it better that they understand the news by getting a clear picture of what has happened or is it better for them to be sheltered from disturbing photos and videos?

Our Sages in the Talmud and in the Mishna have taught us about the pliable minds of our young ones. Misinformation can sear its way into the mind and it is hard to rehabilitate a child’s early erroneous mental imagery. In addition, when a child is presented with ideas and images for which he or she is not yet ready, the mind will experience confusion. The more confusing and upsetting that exposure is to the young child, the more there is actually a risk of brain traumatization.

There are topics, pictures and ideas for which young children are not mature enough to make sense of, and those images and words will hover within the child’s mind, hard to erase. A child may feel sickened, saddened, shamed or enticed by exposure to things which he or she may feel were inappropriate, or for which they knew they were not supposed to be seeing at their age. When this happens, the mind will bounce between trying to suppress the thoughts and feelings, and wanting to go back to those topics which have violated their innocence. In the extreme, this can lead children to obsess, be distracted, moody, or to feel conflicted about themselves. It can also prompt acting out of violent and base urges. Children learn to believe that what they see must be acceptable.

Gruesome and gory pictures, grotesque scenes or sensationalized stories bring the horror into the home, where children need to be children. Images that an adult might be able to handle because the mature brain is equipped to process such adult realities can nonetheless desensitize the adult to violence or to other misconduct. The more one is exposed to violent imagery, for example, the more one might become conditioned to accepting violence as a way of life. Some of our failure to empathize with, to feel for those who suffer is a result of overexposure to games involving aggression and stories about crime.

As for the child who engages in such “play,” learning to accept and to tolerate these themes as an acceptable way of life can block their developing conscience, compassion and impulse control. A significant number of children who struggle with inattentive and distracted thinking and behavior are preoccupied with fantasies and pictures that erode their ability to focus.

When the media covers, say, the story of an accident, this might be an opportunity to impress upon a young child the importance of safety, or safeguarding health, or exercising our faith and our prayers, or feeling sorrow and compassion for the victims and their families. News can be talked about and explained to children so that there is healthy learning taking place. However, when a child is riveted to the scenes of broken glass, and bleeding bodies, of sirens and emergency medical procedures, that wholesome learning is usually obviated. Instead, the child will “at best” experience fear and worry and “at worst” will begin turning to such media with excitement, finding stimulation in these clips and remembering only the body count and the schadenfreude.

We recommend that parents think carefully about the tastefulness of allowing a child unnecessary exposure to graphic media that can contaminate the mind with ideas and characterizations that are literally and figuratively over their heads. Educate your children by conversing with them, learning with them, exposing them to values rather than to vanity. Allow them to be children while they are young, so that they will be ready for a sensitive and stable adulthood.


Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is a forensic and clinical psychologist, and director of Chai Lifeline Crisis Services. To contact Chai Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis helpline, call 855-3-CRISIS or email [email protected]. Learn more at www.chailifeline.org/crisis.

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