Don’t Let Your Kids Watch TV About the Coronavirus Pandemic

Five ways to protect kids from screen-based anxiety about the coronavirus.

Posted Mar 16, 2020

If you are feeling that the world has gone topsy-turvy in the last few weeks, you're not alone. As an adult, you've had more experience and knowledge to handle the sudden changes, but your kids are quite different. If they are anxious about the coronavirus and how it might affect them, it's very important to talk with them and have an age-appropriate, open discussion.

Most parents are not experts on the coronavirus, but can easily learn the basics. There are many great guides from well-respected institutions, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Harvard Medical School, and I encourage you to use these in discussions with your kids. But children get their information about the world from many sources beyond their parents, so also consider using your kids' favorite social media feeds to initiate discussions about the coronavirus. Let them guide the search, with your supervision to assess the trustworthiness of the information.

Ensuring that kids are exposed to reliable and age-appropriate information is critical in managing anxiety about the coronavirus. I suggest that you monitor your children's watching of live TV and not let younger kids view content about the coronavirus. It will also be important to be more vigilant about their use of other screen-based media to protect them from anxiety about coronavirus. 

 LearningWorks for Kids, used with permission
Father and son are playing video games.
Source: LearningWorks for Kids, used with permission

While the most important way kids should learn about the coronavirus is in discussion with parents, teachers, and health care professionals, they will undoubtedly also talk to their peers and get information from social media and screen time. If kids are home from school for an extended period, they will likely engage in more screen time than normal, and unfortunately, there are many movies, video games, online videos, and social media feeds that can exacerbate anxiety about coronavirus. Parents may want to assert themselves more in their children's technology choices in the near future to ensure that the information they gather is reliable and does not foster unnecessary anxiety. 

Here are five ways to protect kids from screen-based anxiety about the coronavirus:

1. Turn off live TV. Most younger kids would not benefit from learning about the spread of the coronavirus and cannot handle the information they might see and hear. Even commercials and announcements that occur between shows might cause unnecessary anxiety.

Allow them to watch channels that have only kid content or non-news materials. Monitor information from sources such as the Science, History, and National Geographic channels, as they may have documentaries on other diseases and health-related concerns that may not be age-appropriate for younger children.

2. Avoid movies about pandemics, infections, and zombies. These have become popular with those who want to scare themselves or, counterintuitively, make light of the current situation. That's fine for adults and maybe even some older teens, but not for younger kids. Movies such as Contagion, The Andromeda Strain, Train to Busan, Outbreak, and World War Z are frightening at the best of times. Keep your kids away from them.

3. Let them play games, just not these. Games such as Plague, Inc., and some of the zombie-focused games may be too much like reality for many teens. These are stressful times for adults and kids. Use games as an opportunity for kids to relax and put their minds on something that has no real consequence.

If your kids end up being stuck in the house for the next few weeks, you might want to loosen up on normal restrictions on video-game play. I do not suggest eliminating gaming restrictions, but extended "vacation" from school opens up many other opportunities for learning, socializing, exercise, and creative activities.

4. Pre-watch any video you might want to use to talk about the coronavirus. I found many of the popular videos on YouTube for talking to kids about the coronavirus to be a bit scary, with some cartoony and complex. Make certain you think the videos are a good fit for your younger children and watch the videos with them. There are many videos that explain the disease and provide information that is useful for teens and tweens. It's best to preview or at least watch these jointly with them. 

5. Discuss tweens' and teens' use of social media during the coronavirus crisis. I do not suggest restricting their access to social media, as this may be their best source of comfort and connection if they are physically isolated from their peers. However, it is imperative they know that many of the theories circulating about coronavirus are without basis.

Help your tweens and teens to be vigilant for misleading information that is widely available on social media outlets. Encourage them to talk with you about frightening information. Preempt their fears by having in-depth discussions about what you know and what you can learn together.