Are nature shows with graphic animal death scenes OK for my child?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Michael Rich, MD, MPH
Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Last week Rich commented on how to use kids’ want for toy weapons as a chance to discuss violence and make suggestions for more peaceful play.  This week he answers a reader’s question about the effect graphic death scenes in nature programming can have on very young children.

Q: What are your thoughts on animal programs that show graphic killing that is in the wild, like Big Cat Diaries? My 4 year old loves animal shows and is interested in seeing this one, yet I am not sure this is appropriate content for his age. Please advise.
Nightmares in Nature, in Miami, FL

A: Dear Nightmares in Nature,

In many ways, your son’s attraction to animal programs that show graphic killing may come from a combination of his interest in animals and his age-appropriate curiosity about death. For 4 year olds, death is difficult to understand as a concept (and difficult to manage once he understands it) but he will encounter it in one way or another. He is responding appropriately for his developmental stage by seeking to confront and master it by watching a show like this.

That said, you are right to wonder whether he is ready to should be watching graphic killing, even if it’s in nature. A wealth of scientific evidence has shown that exposure to violence in media, especially for children under the age of seven (when they have difficulty distinguishing between what’s real and what isn’t) can create fear and anxiety. Researchers have found that college students often remember quite vividly their early exposures to movie or TV violence and that recalling those experiences brought back the same powerful fear response. Many responded powerfully, changing their lifestyles in sometimes irrational ways, such as avoiding swimming (even in swimming pools!) for years after seeing Jaws.

The science suggests that your son may not be ready for these nature shows until he is eight or so. However, you know him best. If you choose to let him watch these shows before then, watch along with him, pay attention to his response, and talk it through with him.  And remember, too, that it is not just the killing itself but also the potential of losing someone he cares about—even if it’s a cute gazelle in Africa—that he is trying to understand and master.

Ultimately, the graphic killing on these shows is used for adding dramatic value to the program. Perhaps the best thing you can do for your son is to channel his interest in animals into getting him outdoors, experiencing nature in real life—watching birds, catching bugs and worms, growing a plant from a seed. These experiences will not only help him stay physically fit and learn about nature, but direct contact with the earth will soothe him and teach him to observe, problem solve, and reflect. It is the children who learn to love the mysteries of the Earth who will grow up to preserve our fragile planet.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®