Amidst the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, it's crucial to recognize the vulnerability of young people who are being exposed to the pervasive violence on social media and in the news. The news is alarming for everyone, but it can be especially challenging for young people to understand. Explaining the horrors of terror and atrocity, attempting to make sense of conflict, and shielding children from the relentless violence is an intricate and often seemingly impossible challenge for parents, other family members, and educators.
Many young people routinely encounter violence through social media, news outlets, and other sources. While the main focus of this piece is to offer guidance on supporting children dealing with the current conflict in the Middle East, it's vital to emphasize that these strategies extend beyond this context and can be applied more broadly.
The ubiquity of traumatizing content on social media compounds this issue, ranging from graphic images and video clips to the disturbing comment threads often accompanying them. This saturation lays bare the full horror of the violence.
Youth may see even more upsetting content than adults, as they tend to spend more time online–most teens have used YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. About three-quarters of teens (77%) use YouTube daily, while a more minor majority (58%) say the same about TikTok. Misinformation is also populating major social media platforms (and news outlets), which can be extremely difficult to pinpoint.
For young people, social media is a primary tool for navigating the world, comprehending their surroundings, connecting with peers, understanding the news, and engaging with entertaining content. As parents, educators, and healthcare professionals, we are responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of young people, especially during conflict and violence.
Understanding the mental health impacts of trauma
Consumption of harmful media can negatively impact a young person’s mental health, and ongoing exposure can cause problems with learning and behavior. Young people who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media have double the risk of mental health problems including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. This relates to all social media consumption, not just exposure to violent or upsetting content. Exposure to violent content amplifies the risk.
Experts warn that the repercussions of witnessing violent scenes from armed conflicts can manifest as heightened anxiety, deep sadness, a sense of isolation, and an elevated perception of risk.
The role of families
Families are often the primary support systems for young people, and they can provide a stable foundation for understanding conflict and coping with trauma. Currently, families are grappling with how to talk to their children about what they see in the news, on social media, and what they might hear from friends and peers.
How a family protects and supports their child depends on the age and developmental stage of the child. A child's age can determine the nature of their concerns and how they respond and process information.
Marsha Richardson, Senior Lecturer and Director, School and Mental Health Counseling Program, Human Development and Quantitative Methods Division at UPenn, provides context, "younger children may focus more on safety and security issues, primarily for themselves and their loved ones…middle schoolers may be more focused on factual information, and high schoolers will have begun assimilating the values of caregivers, school, peers and media."
Consider limiting news and social media consumption
Many experts suggest parents remove social media applications from their children's phones. In the near term, if it's realistic for the family, this is a good recommendation. Deleting applications now does not mean deleting them forever. Once a young person sees something traumatizing on social media, they can't unsee it. Many videos and images on social media are extremely violent and disturbing.
Given that almost every young person engages with social media to some extent, outright app deletion may only be feasible for some. In these cases, parents should actively assist their children in distinguishing between verified and unreliable sources of information. Actions such as unfollowing specific accounts, setting time limits on exposure, and implementing appropriate parental controls can all help.
Help young people understand what's misinformation–and what's not
Even in times of peace, misinformation spreads rampant through social media and news outlets. Especially in times of conflict, it's important to decipher what's true and what's not–to understand what is being taken out of context or mischaracterized. One viral video claims to show a fighter shooting down a helicopter — but it's a clip from the video game Arma 3. There's another clip claiming to show violence from the current conflict, that is actually a video filmed in Guatemala in 2015. These are just two examples among a myriad of false posts.
Helping young people navigate through misinformation includes distinguishing between credible and unreliable sources on social media, offering guidance on fact-checking, and fostering open discussions about the content they encounter. This is an essential lesson in general.
Look for changes in behavior
It's crucial for families to closely monitor their child's behavior, being attentive to any regressive signs that might signify stress or trauma. These indicators may include behaviors like thumb-sucking, requesting to sleep in the parent's bed, heightened tearfulness, a decline in academic performance, physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches, sleep disturbances, unexplained irritability or anger, or a reluctance to attend activities or social gatherings they'd typically participate in.
Parents should maintain an open line of communication with their child's school including teachers and counselors. Fostering a collaborative relationship with educational professionals can provide valuable insights and support. In cases where their child may need extra help in managing stress or trauma, parents should explore the option of seeking therapy. Taking early action to provide timely intervention can help mitigate the progression of symptoms over time and lower the likelihood of emergency department visits and admissions.
Many school districts offer services to support student mental health. See if Hazel is in your district.
Additional resources for families:
- How do I talk to my kids about violence in the news? and Explaining the News to Our Kids: These two guides from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that examines the impact of technology on children, provide age-appropriate tips on how to talk to kids about what's happening in the news.
- How to talk to your children about conflict and war: This guide from UNICEF provides eight tips on supporting and comforting children when war dominates the headlines.
- Supporting Youth Affected by the Violence in Israel and Gaza: Tips for Families and Educators
- Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers: recommendations from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
The role of schools
Many school districts nationwide have released education and resources to help families, educators, and communities support young people and discuss the Middle East crisis. For example, the San Diego County Office of Education released a memo with resources to help educators and families.
Classrooms are powerful places to help children process current events and understand the world around them. As with all complex topics, educators should be keenly aware of how worldwide events emotionally impact students. Teachers, coaches, counselors, and other school staff should pay close attention to how world events impact students. All school staff must be aware of any services their district or school offers to support student mental health.
The importance of self-reflection and self-care for parents, educators, and providers
Many of us, including parents, educators, and providers, are also struggling with stress, sadness, uncertainty, and anxiety. Young people must understand and see that facing emotional challenges, seeking support, and dedicating time to self-care is okay.
We must remember to step back from the constant news cycle, disconnect from our devices, and make room for self-care. This benefits our well-being and sets a powerful example for children, who are observing our emotional responses and regulation during these stressful times.
Highlighting the significance of self-care is a way to lead by example. Whether it involves spending time outdoors, practicing meditation, reading a good book, enjoying music, cooking a meal, expressing gratitude, or any other form of self-care, you must prioritize taking care of yourself.
We asked a few of our therapist’s for their favorite mindfulness and gratitude exercises to do with young people. Here’s what they recommend:
- Every day, write down 3 things you are grateful for in a journal
- Give thanks with a gratitude jar or gratitude tree
- Check out guided meditations and mindfulness through Smiling Mind, Calm or Headspace (free options on Youtube: Smiling Mind, Calm, Headspace)
- For young children, practice Still Quiet Place mindfulness activities
In a world overwhelmed by violence and digital exposure, protecting and supporting young people is paramount. Whether as parents, family members, educators, or healthcare professionals, we can help guide young people through the emotional challenges they face and remind them that it’s okay to need help coping. By fostering open communication, promoting media literacy, and being vigilant for signs of distress, we can help young people navigate an often tumultuous world with resilience and hope.