Parents should shield pre-school age children from graphic news media coverage of the Persian Gulf War, but tell their older children that war is gorier than most television footage has so far conveyed, according to a panel of communications experts.
"The tightrope we have to walk," said Gavriel Salomon, professor of communication at the University of Arizona, "is that we want to let children know that this is all real -- these aren't cardboard cities being bombed. At the same time, we want to reassure them that they are safe."
The solution proferred by two dozen academics and television executives who took part in a conference on "Children and War Coverage" at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication was to treat children of different ages differently.
"For children age 2 to 6, rational verbal reassurances tend to go in one ear and out the other," said Justin Aronfreed, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. "Rather than try to explain the flight properties of a Scud missile to them, or how far away Iraq is from their home, put your arms around them and give them a hug and tell them you are not going to let anything bad happen to them."
Joann Cantor, professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin, added that some explanations to young children "may even backfire." She noted the results of studies in which pre-schoolers had been shown television images of poisonous snakes, followed by reassurances that most snakes are not poisonous. These children expressed more fear about snakes than children who were not given follow-up explanations. "What the kids hear is 'snake' and 'poisonous,' " she explained. "These 'only-a-few-but-most-aren't' explanations don't work on young children."
The panel suggested that broadcasters provide advance warning that graphic scenes are about to be aired during newscasts, and it recommended that they refrain from preempting regularly scheduled children's programs for news bulletins about the war.
"We're not going to sugarcoat this war," said Patrick Roddy, an ABC producer who helped put together a children's special on the war hosted by anchorman Peter Jennings 10 days ago. But Roddy added that his network would try to refrain from airing footage with high shock value if other images could tell the story as effectively.
When the panel turned its attention to older children, the pressing concern was how to "prevent them from perceiving this war as a video game," as Salomon put it.
Said John Wright, a University of Kansas communication professor: "If you watch the war on CNN, it looks like Nintendo, sounds like Nintendo and feels like Nintendo. The fact that you can't control the action simply means it's somebody else's turn on the controls."
The risk that children are being desensitized to the human toll of war is made greater, added George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School, because they are already so accustomed to associating television with sanitized violence.
"They've grown up seeing an average of six to eight violent acts per prime-time hour," Gerbner said. "They see two 'entertaining' murders a night."
Television violence is designed to arouse but not upset, Gerbner continued, and the dramatic tension is always resolved before the final commercial. "This obsession with happy endings means that our children are missing a tragic sense of life," he said.
All the participants agreed that parents should try to explain to their adolescent and pre-adolescent children that antiseptic television images of "smart bombs" masks the devastation and death of war.
But this is easier said than done, they acknowledged. When William Labov, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, posed the question, "At what age do children understand death?" there was knowing laugther around the table at Salomon's deadpan response:
"Somewhere between ages 67 and 75," he said.