Children have endless access to media and the internet. They can spend up to six hours on screens watching anything from nursery rhymes to cooking videos. Teenagers spend as many as nine hours a day on their phones. The internet can be informative. However, it can still expose children to traumatic images that aren’t appropriate for them to see.
News media may not always have content that is suitable for children. The cycles of death, war, torture, assault, or trauma get a lot more coverage than “positive” news. Studies show that horrific news gets more engagement. In addition, world disasters require more urgent coverage and always have more updates compared to “positive” news. While adults and young adults need to remain informed, the information may be too overwhelming for children. They may also not know how to parse analysis and framing that can skew news to a dangerous bent.
Children are naturally curious, want to exert their independence, think for themselves, and are innocent. A conflict or natural disaster isn’t observed with the same complexities and nuances that an adult could. You can’t shield your children from all the horrors happening in the world but you can find a way to let them understand what is going on to have them show empathy and compassion without having to deal with trauma.
Over-exposure to certain events or views can alter the way your children think. If you allow kids as young as ten to watch news coverage that is biased against a marginalised group, they could internalise that bigotry. Additionally, children overexposed to trauma can grow up believing the world is hostile and can react accordingly with anxiety or unfriendliness.
How can parents help their children?
Studies show that when children are exposed to too much violent media, they can experience desensitisation, anxiety, fear, sleep loss, and traumatic stress symptoms. It’s also important for parents, guardians, or teachers to ensure that the children remain informed and empathetic without exposing them to gruesome images online. Children don’t need to see images of mass shootings, war, or sexual assault, especially when they can’t process what’s unfolding before them.
Children’s online safety prioritises their well-being without sacrificing their need to know. Having children understand how war affects other people and gain empathy for victims of crisis is important. However, they need to learn not to fear the outside world or become hostile to people who are removed from their lived experience. Children need to start honing critical thinking skills as young as possible. This is because they will be exposed to world media when their parents aren’t there to supervise. If they can engage with media critically, they won’t be indoctrinated by dangerous rhetoric. Also, where they don’t understand, they will know to ask knowledgeable adults or read more about the crisis at hand.
1. Find child-friendly news
There are plenty of child-friendly news sources, such as Time for Kids, which parents can use to help children understand their world. This helps them know without seeing distressing images. It also gives children space to process the feelings that may arise from learning such heavy news. Media coverage for older people doesn’t leave breathing room which can easily cause adults to despair or get caught up in a cycle of doomscrolling.
2. Establish boundaries
Try to set up restrictions on what your children can access. If they have cell phones or computers, establish parental blocks that notify you whenever they try to access traumatic content. Some social media sites restrict objectionable images such as dead bodies but they don’t always flag that content. Chatrooms have fewer restrictions for disturbing content. Ensure you can access your child’s inbox without violating their privacy or questioning them about things that don’t concern you. Your child has to agree to you going through their messages, and understand why, otherwise they will find secret ways to communicate that you won’t be able to supervise at all.
3. Check your media consumption reactions
Children mimic their parents’ opinions regarding the news. If you have strong opinions about a specific individual, your statements may be strong and can easily be misconstrued as problematic. They’re also not statements your children should be repeating without context. In addition, you shouldn’t expose your children to doom and gloom news cycles. Show them there is another side to the world where people are extremely helpful, unified, empathetic, and joyful. Don’t shame your children if they don’t have an appropriate emotional reaction when you’re watching a devastating news event. Until they understand what’s going on, be patient with them.
4. Warn your children
It’s important for children to also be aware of what kind of content they should be aware of. Giving them some trigger warnings to look out for so that they know to avoid the videos when you aren’t there to help them navigate it can help. A six-year-old girl may not be able to understand what a mass shooting is and a news report by an unaffected anchor may not be the safest way for her to understand. But if they know that mass killing is something they need to talk with a trusted adult about, they can let you know when they come across news or online videos mentioning such atrocities and you can both manage the situation in a way that helps them understand it better, without robbing them of their ability to trust the world.
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