With near-constant exposure to news and social media amidst this injustice – amplified by increased screentime and being isolated at home due to the pandemic – more kids are watching graphic videos of tragic violence and reading hateful comments on social media. The stress of watching vicarious trauma through a screen brings with it emotional and mental health effects. For some kids, they haven’t previously been exposed to such graphic violence. As Lisa, a mother of teenagers in Washington state shared, “My kids weren’t of age for 9/11. Horrific school shootings usually show the aftermath, but not the actual murders. Watching graphic and tragic violence is new for many children, and they lack a template to know how to interpret and process it.” As parents, how can we help our children process and respond to what they are seeing?
It’s important to first acknowledge that this is coming from a position of privilege. “If you’re not having exposure because it’s on your streets or in the choppers overhead and it’s only because of media access, we have to acknowledge that is privilege” shared clinical psychologist Allison Briscoe-Smith, Ph.D., Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of the Wright Institute, in a Common Sense Media webinar.
For younger kids, Briscoe-Smith suggests doing our best to limit exposure. If a child accidentally walks up and there is a graphic image on your screen that they see or if a news story shares graphic content, she suggests using that moment to pause and discuss questions like, “What did you see? How do you understand it? What are you feeling? Let me explain and also let me tell you right here in this moment that you’re safe and you’re ok.”
“With our teens, we can sit down and have the conversation – what are you seeing? How are you seeing it? Let’s talk about what it means to be exposed to viral images of black death. It’s deleterious to our health to watch viral black death again and again and again. Yet our youth are really at risk because they’re on their screens even more so in light of coronavirus. We need to have the conversation to say how do we slow this down? What are you watching? How do you feel before this? After this? What are the ways we can we restrict or moderate the exposure in that specific way?”
Briscoe-Smith also suggests that – in addition to being reactive to situations that arise, we can be proactive, training our kids to be savvy consumers to understand questions such as “What is click bait? Why are people showing this? Who gets paid when people see this? Who is benefiting from our anger and rage? And who is benefiting from us getting worn down? Those are conversations we can start when kids are little and should be moving and advancing as we talk with youth so they can have some agency in what they’re seeing and can also work towards mediating those impacts by being in relationship with us.”
Narrate your own experience.
Briscoe-Smith shares that “we can teach our kids how to manage affect and emotion by explicitly teaching them. We can say that Mama’s having a really hard day because she’s sad about what’s going on, but I’m going to be ok.” It is powerful to lead with vulnerability.
Give kids permissions to have feelings.
“I think it’s really important to give our kids permission to have their feelings. We help them put names and words to it. We help them to understand where it rests in their body. For example, I can tell I’m anxious because I’m having a hard time sleeping. Or I can tell that I’m angry because my fists are balled up. We can help them name and move through their feelings rather than shutting it down. We have to really be willing to listen to our children.”
Ask your kids about what they’ve seen that day.
Maybe try this at dinner each night or before bedtime. Was there anything that made them feel uncomfortable? Were there any images or words that are sticking in their head? Did they see anyone do something cruel? How did people respond? This is creating an opportunity to speak openly with our children about what they’re seeing online.
Pediatrician Dr. Jacqueline Dougé (who co-authored the AAP’s statement on the impact of racism on child and adolescent health) shared that her youngest son has conversations with her very late in the day. “When he’s watching TV or YouTube and I ask how his day is going and he says nothing, but then at maybe 9-10pm, he’ll come to me and share ‘Oh Mom, did you know about so and so?’ and then we can engage and have conversation.”
Scroll their feed with them.
If your child is willing, share about how feeds are so customized and can become echo chambers. Ask if they’d be willing to scroll feeds together. Walk through your feed and how some of the posts make you feel. Ask if they’d be willing to share what’s popping up on their feed.
Set screen or social media boundaries.
As your children get older, it’s great to help them learn about their own needs for self-regulation. After seeing something intense, it might be good to go on a run or call a friend. Help them determine the best way to process their emotions and not just numb them. As they’re building muscles to get to that point, it’s good to set boundaries. It can be things like no device use in private places (their bedroom or the bathroom), not having devices in their bedrooms overnight, or limiting the amount of time spent on social media.
Help them channel their emotions and passion into something that can be more productive.
Have them consider who might be hurting that they want to actually call or text individually for a deeper conversation than just a social media post. Read a book to gain new understanding. Research organizations serving this cause that you could support. Shop from a Black-owned business.
We are thankful for how screens brought George Floyd to our nation’s collective attention – thanks to social media, which can be harnessed for good personally, professionally, and civically. May this be a powerful opportunity to begin conversations that will continue for years to come.