Turn on the news and you'll see violent images from the latest disaster – a gunman kills 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus. Glance at the front page of the newspaper to view the aftermath of the latest disaster -- natural or man-made.
After awhile, this constant barrage of violent images tends to induce numbness in adults.
The same can't be said for children.
"As a culture, we have become incredibly desensitized to violence. We're used to one catastrophe after another." says Susan Villani, MD, medical director of school programs at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md.
"But this [violent image] may be the very first for a child. I worry that there is no break in sight for our children because adults themselves have become so comfortable with violence," she says.
The onslaught of violent images in the media leaves parents wondering how much they should allow their children to see. What impact does it have? How should they respond?
The answers, say experts, depend largely on the child's age.
The Youngest Children (Ages 0 to 6)
Very young children, between 0 and 3 years of age, are too young to understand the meaning of violent images, explains Lynn Hagan, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker and expert on how violence affects children. But that doesn't mean they're not frightened by them.
Therefore, it's important parents offer reassurance to young children who see or hear about violent images. "They need to be told that they're being taken care of by their parents," says Michael Salamon, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York.
Plus, it's never too early to send messages of self-reliance, says Salamon. "Tell them, 'We'll teach you how to take care of yourself,'" he says.
Ideally, say the experts, it's best to avoid exposing very young children to violent images altogether.
"For children under 6, it's realistic to shield them a fair amount," says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, a psychologist in Emory University's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
That includes what they overhear from their parents' conversations. "Monitor your conversations," Kaslow cautions adults.
In spite of parents' best efforts, it's likely the youngest eyes and ears will be exposed to violent images. When that happens, parents should do some damage control.
Hagan offers the following suggestions: "Maintain your usual routine; keep things as normal as possible for your child. And reiterate that you're not going to abandon them."
Children 6 to 12
Typically, children in this age group "lack the depth of consequences," Hagan tells WebMD.
That's why it's important for parents to make themselves available to discuss what's behind the violent images their children witness. "Tell your children repeatedly that you're there to talk about it with them," Salamon urges.
To make such a conversation effective, parents need to know where to start. "Ask how much they know and understand about what's going on. Don't automatically assume anything," Hagan says.
It's likely initiating a conversation will lead to ongoing dialogue. "Be available to your children. As they process the information, they'll be coming back to you," Hagan says.
When it comes to teens' exposure to violent images, parents can and should take a direct, involved approach, Salamon says. "Go over the news, read the newspaper together, discuss what's going on," he suggests.
Older children exposed to violent images can find it empowering to be part of a solution. For instance, if a natural disaster strikes, parents may suggest that their children contact the local Red Cross chapter to see how they can volunteer to help.
When kids get involved, they gain a sense of control, explains Hagan. "It makes them feel like they're making a difference," she tells WebMD.
Older children may also find comfort in developing a plan of action, should a catastrophic event touch their own lives, suggests Brian Chu, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University.
"Problem-solve with your child," he says. This might include plans on how parents and children can maintain contact with one another in the event of a tragedy, like getting in touch by cell phone. The level of detail parents offer during such a discussion should depend on the age, maturity level, and general anxiety level of the child, explains Chu.
Reduce Excessive Exposure at Any Age
Most experts agree that children, regardless of age, should not be exposed to an excessive amount of violent images. Seeing a bomb explode is one thing. Watching it detonate repeatedly can make a single incident seem much grander in scale, particularly to an audience of young children.
Take, for example, coverage of 9/11 events. "Little kids kept seeing those images, and they thought there were lots of planes," says Kaslow.
Around-the-clock news coverage from multiple sources makes it difficult to limit exposure. "It's constant. We have 24-hour news stations, which leads people to believe they live in an unsafe environment," Villani tells WebMD.
So it's up to parents to monitor exposure. "TV shouldn't be background noise, particularly 24-hour news shows. That visual image is enticing, but children can't necessarily process it," Villani says.
Fear is one consequence of excessive exposure; unwanted behavior changes are another. "The literature has concluded that, in some cases, repeated exposure to violence heightens neurochemical changes in the brain that correlate with aggressive behavior," Salamon tells WebMD.
Plus, lots of children need a break from the real-life violence they confront in everyday life. "Thirty five percent of children are sexually abused over time. Seventy percent of children in urban environments are exposed to violence. Why would we want to exposure them to even more?" Salamon asks.
Assess Level of Fear
When it comes to assessing the effect of violent images on children, parents need to consider more than age. "It also depends on the particular child. Some are way more sensitive than others," Kaslow tells WebMD.
By carefully evaluating a child's reaction first, parents can avoid creating an atmosphere of fear where one doesn't exist. "Talk and listen in a way that allows children to express their own potential fears. Don't assume that they're having a reaction that they may not be [having," says Chu.
Build a Secure Atmosphere
While parents can't always know how their children will react to violent images, they can take concrete steps to create and maintain an atmosphere of security.
Providing a secure home environment probably tops the list. "When children can at least know that their home is a safe place, that eases their anxiety level," Kaslow tells WebMD.
Putting violent events into perspective helps too. "Tell them the events are rare and that, generally, the world is a safe place," suggests Hagan.
Despite parents' best efforts to help children maintain a sense of security and control over their lives in the midst of troubling images, anxiety levels may remain high.
"If it seems like an obsession that's consuming their thoughts or actions, then you need to address it," Kaslow says.
Because one thing is certain -- the world's violence is not going to go away.
This article was reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD