Frightening newspaper front pages can harm children, says psychologist


FRONT PAGES of newspapers that scare children break the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a leading Norwegian child psychologist has said.

Prof Magne Raundalen also said the brains of children subjected to long-term, low-grade fear are damaged by high levels of the cortisone hormone which may reduce their IQ by 10 per cent.

Speaking at a seminar organised by the Press Council of Ireland on Children and the Media, Prof Raundalen, of the Centre for Crisis Psychology in Bergen, Norway, said newspapers were made for adults by adults, but the front page was read by children.

They were frightened by startling headlines, particularly those involving child death, he said. Children who had suffered traumas in their lives could be particularly susceptible to long-term reactions, “after seeing only one frightening front page”.

“These children can perceive frightening front pages in a way that is harmful to them,” he said.

Prof Raundalen said an American study had shown children from “normal families” who lived with a small, but constant fear of corporal punishment had lost 10 per cent of their IQ. The cortisone hormone, produced when a person was in a state of fear, “poisoned part of the brain” central to memory, he said.

Front-page headlines which scared children could be in breach of article 17 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognises the effects of the media on children.

Prof Raundalen suggested a series of guidelines for the press when covering stories about child death on the front page. These included the exclusion of pictures of the child who has been killed, the avoidance of headlines such as “child killed by mum or dad”, and the avoidance of detailed information on the method of death.

Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan suggested there should be some collaboration between her office and the media to offer guidance on reporting about children.

Also speaking at the seminar, Dr Paul Connors, national director of communications with the HSE, said in all reportage on children’s issues, the benchmark before publishing should be “what is in the best interests of the child”.

He acknowledged the media made efforts to protect the identity of children and its role as watchdog, but complained about the publication of “the prurient details” of children’s lives without considering their impact, in particular in the Roscommon childcare case.

He criticised the media coverage of the way the HSE released the numbers of children who had died in care. It was “dangerous” to suggest the HSE was secretive as this would prevent children in care and their families from trusting it.

Dr Connors told delegates the majority of the 5,600 children in HSE care were happy and the media should focus more on that.

Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said a “central dilemma” in reporting was that sometimes the needs of children demand more publicity, but the needs of an individual child could be damaged by that publicity.

He also said he wanted to believe the vast majority of children in HSE care were leading happy, healthy lives, but he had too much anecdotal evidence of children lost in the system or of foster families unable to get the help they needed.

Catherine Ghent family law solicitor with Kelleher O’Doherty Solicitors, spoke about the need to lift the in camera rule in family law, but she warned any reform would have to be “careful”. She suggested a court reporter with suitable qualifications be allowed to report on family law cases, with a time delay before publication.