Oct 10, 2023
The news out of Israel this week has been terrible. Social media has been flooded with graphic and violent imagery. However, this portrayal of global events is very different from when we were children and horrible things happened.
The nightly newscast, airing at specific hours on specific channels and regulated by the FCC, provided facts with limited photos, and parents knew when and how kids might be exposed to disturbing news.
Today – in the social media era – the experience is completely different. Whether a child goes looking for it or not, a scroll through TikTok or a recommended algorithm on YouTube will take them to horrifying imagery within seconds.
Children’s brains are not adult brains. They are not going to be able to process what they are seeing, even if they know it is violent.
This week, I wanted to talk about how we can handle things when our kids see violent things online.
First, when we give our kid a smart device, we have to be prepared for them to see all of the horrible things on the internet.
If we’re not ready to talk about that, they are not ready to have unlimited access to the internet, no matter how locked down it is.
(And yes, I realize how hard it is to avoid the internet, given how much time they spend on screens at schools, the fact that so many friends may have them, even if they do not, and that we adults are constantly doom scrolling and texting. The kids are watching.)
Secondly, we have to remember that kids are curious by nature.
What isn't normal or healthy is seeing horrific, brutal violence when you're a child and not having any context for understanding or processing it.
As parents, our responsibility is to have continuous conversations about the fact Google is not where we start when looking for information, and we model, as adults, that analog sources don’t come with algorithms– physical books, experts, librarians, teachers, paper newspapers, family and friends are all non-digital sources of information.
Third, tweens are spending over 5 hours a day on screens for entertainment, including social media. For teens, it is over 8 hours.
At an age when their brains are changing and identities forming, peer pressure is very real, and today, peer pressure is all about social media– who has it, who liked your post, whose post went viral.
With so many hours per day online, specifically social media, children have even more opportunities to encounter something horrifying, intentionally or not. When our kids turn to TikTok to scroll for entertainment, it’s only a matter of seconds before they will also see what’s going on in the news, and then they will get visual after visual after visual, because the algorithm learns.
What can parents do?
Ideally, start the conversations before you hand your child an internet-connected device. Even better, especially with young children, don’t allow screens alone in a bedroom. Co-view as often as possible. Talk often and loudly about what you see and notice online. Be annoying. When the teens roll their eyes, it means they’re listening.
Be the trusted adult. When, not if, our kids encounter something online that shocks or confuses them, we absolutely want to be the first person they come and tell about it. And our first response must always, always be: “Thank you for telling me. I’m sorry that happened. We’re going to turn this off until I can figure out what to do.” What do we need to do to be a parent whose child can come and share this with us? That’s a very important question to answer.
Do not rely solely on filters, monitoring software, or parental controls. They are not foolproof, they do not catch 100%, and they do not absolve us of the responsibility of teaching our children about what to do when something bad happens. Horrible, violent, graphic imagery is everywhere online right now. And just like our kids are super savvy about finding the workarounds, trust me, so are the algorithms.
Parents, the answer isn’t to panic.
Yes, there are horrifying images out there, yes, it’s bad, and yes, kids are seeing it.
But the best antidote to fear is action. Start with a simple statement: “There are some really bad things happening on the news right now. I know you might hear or see something about them when you’re online, or even on a friend’s phone.”
Then remind them: “The internet isn’t designed for kids, and there are lots of videos and pictures that might be really horrible or scary. Please remember that you can always, always come tell me and I will never be mad.”
And then, when they come to you, your first response isn’t to panic or yell, it is to say, “Thank you for telling me. I’m so sorry that happened.”
Keep the conversations going.