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Dealing With Difficult News: Children, Media and the Boston Marathon Bombings

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It's been almost week now since the Boston Marathon bombings. Over the past few days, those of us here in Boston have been living in what can only be described as a surreal state. I'll leave it to others to reflect on the meanings of this week with regard to issues of terrorism, immigration and whether the uncertainties of life in the post-9/11, post-Marathon bombing era will become the "new normal." For me, part of the meaning of this past week has had a lot to do with issues of media and children.

I heard about what had happened during the Marathon when I was in the supermarket with my 13 year- old son. The information was incomplete, confusing and frightening. We quickly paid for our groceries, got into the car and put on the radio. And when we got home, we immediately turned to other media - we put on the television but of course found more up-to-the-minute information from a variety of Internet sources. Within an hour of the event, we'd heard from my other children - the 17 year old away on a college visiting trip, the 19 and 22 year olds at their respective colleges, as well as a variety of other relatives, friends and colleagues. Cell phones, texts, Facebook posts and emails - the instantaneous social currency of today - enabled people to check in, check locations, let people know that they were safe, albeit unsettled.

In the days that followed I heard from people near and far. Current students felt a need to connect even when we didn't have class. Former students living all over the world emailed; relatives across the country called. As Boston Globe editor Amanda Katz movingly wrote, in contrast to the days right after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, this time the "...ubiquitous pocket phone-camera-computers, our powerful web of connections to old friends everywhere in the world, meant that the first questions we ask in such times of disaster - are the people we love safe, and how can we help - were now answerable in minutes, not days".

Though the world of social media does enable us to reach out and virtually touch someone virtually immediately, they also had other functions during this crisis. Certainly the prevalence of cell phone cameras and social networking sites enabled images of the alleged bombers to be broadcast around the world and might have helped law enforcement to end their siege, helped Marathon victims to be found by loved ones quickly, allowed people here in Boston and around the world to have some sense of what was going on at all times. But the unrelenting presence of media also meant a near constant staccato of information barraging us in ways that were disconcerting, too.

Child development experts tell parents that when disasters occur, either manmade or natural, it's important to shield very young children from some of the most disturbing images. It's also important to take cues from your child - reassure your child that s/he is safe, answer the questions that she or he asks. And parents need to remember that children, too, pick up on cues from us. Media researcher Joanne Cantor reminds us that children - even older children - can have residual effects from seeing news images that frighten them long after the news event is over.

Though my own children are no longer very young, my desire to protect them as best I could remains strong. With the Boston Marathon bombings, this meant suggesting to my two younger sons that after a while it was time to take a break from following the story during the week, and meant being there to speak with both of my college kids when they called home, which they did more than usual this past week. It meant reminding all four of them that sometimes in this super-competitive world of 24/7 media coverage, despite how much we often might want resolution, sometimes reporters go on air with things that later prove incorrect. And that even the real-time Twitterverse can be a source that needs to be questioned.

Friday, April 19 was perhaps the most bizarre day in a week of bizarre days. With the suspects on the run, much of Boston went on lockdown. Since classes were cancelled at Tufts and students were being urged to stay in their dorms, I was home, and glad to be there. All day long we monitored the media for information. But as the minutes and hours went on and the second suspect had still not been found, much as we tried to go about our business, we kept being drawn to hear the latest. We, like everyone else in the world, wished the situation to be over.

That evening we sat in the family room, watching and listening as the events cresecendoed to their conclusion. My 17 year old had found a site that was broadcasting the Watertown police scanner; this spit out new information, often in coded police talk, every few seconds. He also watched the twitter feed. My 13 year old monitored a local network affiliate on his laptop, while I viewed another on mine. We had the television on yet another network. Our cell phones buzzed with texts from others, and we made sure to text relatives and friends outside of Boston to let them know what we were hearing. The information was bursting all around us at an astonishing rate.

As I write this post, Boston is returning to some semblance of normalcy. But the story is not over, as the news reports unrelentingly remind us. In years to come "where were you during the Boston Marathon bombings?" will join the pantheon of news events that are burned into our collective memories. For one generation it was knowing where you were when you got the news of JFK's assassination; for another, when Challenger exploded; for others, when the planes flew into the Twin Towers. These horrific images, flashed again and again and again in news, indelibly mark us in time and place. And now another joins its ranks, arguably ingrained even more deeply because of how today's news media and social media covered this story.

The ways media covered this news event, and the ways in which we used media to become informed and to be connected, will certainly continue to unfold. In the meantime, I'm going to make sure that I use all the media available to me to connect even more with my kids. And to hug them in person whenever I can.