The tragedy at London's Grenfell Tower was marked by eyewitness accounts of people leaping for their lives or throwing babies out to people below. The unfolding grief sprawled over our screens, on the heels of terrorist attacks and losses of life.
For me, the tragedy triggered memories of a 5am wake-up call from my old man in Brisbane in 2001, asking if I'd heard. Heard what? 'Turn on your TV.' I quickly went from surfing free-to-air channels to the news channels.
The sight of planes repeatedly flying into New York towers stays with me, as does the eerie image of people choosing to leap from the buildings rather than burn. Those images are seared into the memories of billions of viewers. My father's bleary observation that 'this changes things' has proven apt, if not prophetic.
In those 'pre-children' days I didn't have to consider what to do about kids watching that scene and the countless others that have played out since in our 24-hour news cycles. But the visual playing and replaying of traumatic images have changed how we view parental responsibilities.
It's not that we had never grasped the power of the visual image. Painting and stills, photographs, had moved numerous generations prior to that of my children. Consider the 1963 images of Vietnamese monks aflame, the 1968 photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan casually killing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon, the image of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc crying in agony from a napalm dousing in 1972.
Those photographs are of course widely attributed as helping to bring about the eventual cessation of the Vietnam War. But the accumulated power of recycled horror — terror — on your television set? The impact on minds young and old? That's still comparatively new. It's still being processed and researched.
An article published online last June, focusing on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, reported that people 'exposed to more than six hours of daily media coverage of the tragedy were more likely to experience symptoms of acute stress than those directly affected by the event'. Did you absorb that? News junkies, or those who saw extended coverage, were found to be worse off than those who actually survived the bombings.
'What was striking was the impact of this media exposure even for people who knew nobody, who weren't there that day,' said the study's co-author, Professor Roxane Cohen Silver. 'Media exposure was a stronger predictor of acute stress response than having been there.' Local academic Professor Beverley Raphael from the ANU's Australian Trauma and Grief Network specifically cited video footage as being 'much more unsettling' as it 'can stick in a child's mind more than the static images in print media or the audio in radio stories'.
"We choose not to sugarcoat the truth about the hatreds and inane insanities of this world, and how we treat each other. Neither, however, do we bathe masochistically in the blood that saturates our mass and social media."
The obvious, initial response is aversion. Obfuscation. That desire to protect your kids through denying them the means to comprehend just how sick and twisted some bastards are in this life. How bleakly and inanely some tragic situations will play out; while it remains to be seen just what went down in Grenfell Tower, some sources claim shoddy, flammable building materials contributed to the conflagration after renovations on the cheap. Who needs terrorism, when you have plain old venality?
But solely shielding children and teenagers from truths does them a disservice. I acknowledge the advice given in that ABC report: we are better off providing honest information to our kids that limits the graphic exposure, share whatever exposure to visuals and information we choose to allow with them; all the while providing balance, 'comfort and affection'. Depending on the age and maturity of the child or children, the article also suggests actively changing the subject with 'a game or a new activity'.
With our kids, aged 13 and ten, we choose not to sugarcoat the truth about the hatreds and inane insanities of this world, and how we treat each other. Neither, however, do we bathe masochistically in the blood that saturates our mass and social media. We know that they will find out what we try to hide from them, from their mates and from media. So we choose not to hide. We walk through the grief scapes with them. Turning off the bloody screens, we look them in the eye and talk about the world we are leaving them. Exposing them to life, in careful, 'shared doses', may be the lesser of ill options that ultimately protects them.
Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for The Salvation Army.