Last year, Georgina Taylor turned on the television at her home in Sydney, Australia, to catch up on the latest developments in the tragedy of Diana, Princess of Wales. She expected that her three-year-old twin girls would leave the room.
"I thought, they'll get bored and go," she says. "But it was very easy for them to understand. They just sat there and enjoyed it."
After watching several hours of TV reports, the twins seemed to become fixated on the tragedy. "They would play games where they'd be the princess who was driving too fast. She dies, and the kingdom doesn't understand why," Mrs. Taylor recalls.
Such behavior is familiar to researchers Cassandra Weddell and Janice Copeland. After studying the viewing habits and playground games of two-to-five-year-olds at a preschool in Ashgrove, Australia, from 1995 to 1997, they discovered children were watching TV news and incorporating it in their play.
Some children, the researchers found, had even invented sophisticated games based on the war in Bosnia, natural disasters, and other violent news stories.
When the researchers asked parents what they thought children were watching, they named old staples such as "Sesame Street." Meanwhile, teachers said they believed pupils' viewing of violent shows was restricted to superhero cartoons.
Ms. Weddell says adults may not be aware of what children are watching because, with both parents often working, more children watch television unsupervised than ever before.
Many parents would be "very surprised at the sort of concepts their children are dealing with," Weddell says. "Young kids are not ... oblivious to what's around them. Children are incredibly observant and perceptive."
Weddell was a preschool teacher 10 years ago. She says that back then, her students didn't ask detailed questions about a conflict in another country or show considerable knowledge of environmental issues such as global warming.
But in today's information age, children are absorbing news media coverage "like sponges," Weddell says. One example: She found that children only need to see six eye-catching TV news flashes on a particular event for them to turn it into a game.
The researchers observed three small boys using toys to reenact the 1995 bombing around Sarajevo, Bosnia, by NATO air forces. The bombing was just like a scene out of a movie, four-year-old Simon - who watched the event on television - told an adult supervisor excitedly. "But it was really happening in Bosnia," he said.
Another group of children pretended to bring convoys of food to refugees with an army truck made out of blocks. "We have to feed the people ... we have to save them from the bombs!" cried five-year-old Michael. "Hide them in the trucks, and we'll make a convoy to a safe place."
The researchers presented their findings to a conference in Brisbane, Australia, in September, provoking enormous interest and prompting the state government there to launch an inquiry into TV's effects on children.
But the Weddell-Copeland findings have not received high praise from everyone. Barbara Biggins, executive director of the children's television lobby group Young Media Australia, says there is nothing new about kids playing games based on current affairs.
"They will act out laying bodies on stretchers with little understanding of what is actually happening," she says. "It's pure imitation."
But Weddell says children do understand the messages behind their games, based on the questions they ask teachers. "Global awareness was reflected everywhere in the playground," she says.
Apparently, the growing attraction of TV news is not restricted to Australian children. In February 1997, The Washington Post reported on a study that found nearly half of the two-to-eight-year-old children from a small community in northern Italy watched the news. American and Canadian children of the same age share similar viewing habits, the research team noted.
Weddell says children's growing awareness of current events is a positive phenomenon. Rejecting calls by experts around the world for youngsters to be shielded from the media's portrayal of violence, she and Ms. Copeland say it is time parents accept that children will be exposed to the news. "Children are watching it, so let's not put our heads in the sand," Weddell says.
She and Copeland want early-childhood teachers to incorporate news in their lesson plans, showing children the art of watching and interpreting the news media so they will not be manipulated by it.
Weddell mentions Canada and the Scandinavian countries as leaders in teaching news media literacy to children, with the US and Australia lagging behind.
Some news 'too disturbing'
But Ms. Biggins of Young Media Australia rejects this approach. She says until the age of 11 or 12, children do not understand that the disturbing events they see on TV are not likely to happen to them. Many children were upset after watching the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 and scenes of the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq, Biggins says. Likewise, stories on mass murders and cruelty toward children and animals are too disturbing.
"Parents say that watching television news is better for their children than watching the violence in television dramas because this is real life, and we shouldn't be shielding them from it," Biggins says. "But the thing is that it isn't real life. The focus is on the sensational, the bizarre, and the horrifying."
Leonie Lamont, a mother of two here in Sydney, says exposing her children to the news is "not necessarily a bad thing." But she says there is a distinct news "overload" in her house because she and her husband are journalists. At first, her six-year-old Marcus merely expressed interest in the news. But when his Saturday morning cartoons were interrupted to show efforts to rescue a man buried by a landslide at an Australian ski resort in July, Marcus continually tuned in for updates. "He was definitely upset by it," Mrs. Lamont says. Now, the couple tapes the evening news to watch after the children are asleep.
Taylor has similar concerns. Her five-year-old son experienced recurring nightmares, which she later discovered were caused by news reports on fires and murders. "He was keeping it all inside, and it was eating away at him," she says. Now she prohibits her children from watching the news. But she worries they will still learn about a disturbing event and not know how to deal with it.
Taylor wishes her children could watch a noncommercial news program aimed at them. This could be broadcast at 6 p.m., she suggests, with more graphic reports screened at a later hour so "our children can learn about what's going on ... but not the bad things."
Tips for Parents On Watching TV With Your Children
Child experts, concerned about children watching violent TV programs without adult supervision, offer the following suggestions:
* Children should spend no more than 10 hours a week watching television and videos and playing computer games. Australian researchers found that two-to-five-year-olds there watch up to 17 hours a week. In the United States, children watch an average of 28 hours a week.
* Plan with your children what programs they will watch during the week. Such scheduling can help parents get a fairly good idea of what their children are watching.
* Watch potentially problematic shows with your children. Record the programs on video and pause the tape to explain violent, racist, or sexist language or actions.
* Be alert to signals that children will give to indicate they don't understand or like a program, such as turning away from the TV. This will tell you that the program needs to be explained or that the television should be switched off.
* If a program bothers you or your child, complain to the television network.
* Offer children alternatives to watching television, such as reading, playing games, or helping you with an activity.
Sources: Cassandra Weddell, Queensland University of Technology, and Barbara Biggins, Young Media Australia