Whenever she's asked how kids respond to traumatic TV events, researcher Amy Jordan remembers John F. Kennedy.
That's because she was a preschooler parked in front of a cartoon TV show in 1963 when news reporters interrupted to announce that the president had been shot and killed.
"My mother asked me if he was dead, and I remember being confused, because I didn't really know the difference between being shot and being dead," said Jordan, who now serves as a children's TV researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. "For children, their whole psychosocial development can be compromised by such images. You have to wonder whether it's a good idea to have them remember and relive those experiences."
Jordan and other child development experts interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times advised caution in exposing children to TV shows such as CBS's two-hour documentary on the World Trade Center attacks, 9/11 (airing at 9 p.m. EST Sunday.)
As the network prepares to air the show - featuring footage from a documentary crew that entered the Trade Center towers with a team of firefighters just before the second plane struck - parents may wonder: Is this suitable for children?
Though press accounts from a screening earlier this week report the documentary features no gruesome footage, the program does include the unedited rough language of the firefighters, thumping sounds that could be the impact of falling bodies, and ominously dark footage as one cameraman helps extricate bodies and flees the tower just before it collapses.
Experts interviewed for this story noted - though every child is different and parents would know best whether their kids should watch - that children younger than 8 years old might have difficulty seeing the show.
"It's graphic displays . . . the sound effects, the appearance and the look of things that frightens kids at that age," said Doug Gentile, director of research for the Minnesota-based National Institute on Media and the Family. "Telling kids 'Don't worry, it's only TV' doesn't help young children."
If parents do choose to let their children watch 9/11, the researcher suggested adults watch the show with them to discuss any images that may seem unsettling and to assure younger kids that what they're seeing actually happened months ago.
"I don't feel kids should (automatically) be protected from gut-wrenching images and profanity, but they need to be helped to process it," Jordan said.
Kathleen Heide, a University of South Florida professor and specialist on child abuse, offers an obvious notion: The experience will be more intense for children (and adults) that have already experienced serious psychological trauma.
"People who felt debilitated by watching TV (during the initial attacks in September) were much more affected if they had been traumatized before," said Heide, who recommended caution for any child younger than age 12.
Citing a recent study in which 9 of 10 adults admitted having seen TV or movie images that significantly frightened them, Gentile wondered: Why wouldn't children feel the same?
"People tend to underestimate the power of the TV image," he added. "Even for adults, who may think we're over it, shows (like "9/11") are probably going to be very disturbing. For children, the image is even more powerful, because they have less defenses against it."
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