By Research Psychologist at Charles Sturt University Dr Brian Moore.
Exposing children to complex issues and disturbing content without supervision
Irrespective of your age, you will likely have vivid memories of media coverage from various events that have occurred across your lifespan.
These events can form flashbulb memories which refer to enduring and detailed high-resolution memories. My recollection of images from the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the first Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq, and scenes of genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia have disturbing clarity.
Notably, this pre-dates the information age where the 24-hour media cycle perpetuates a constant stream of narrative and images that can be difficult for children to understand, not to mention the informal and unvetted sources of information that can be accessed via social media.
Two separate events during the last month highlight the type of content our children are potentially being exposed to.
The conflict in Ukraine and the video footage of a shark attack at a Sydney beach are distinctly different, yet both involve disturbing and graphic content. Both received, or are receiving, extensive formal media coverage, and both have a significant social media presence.
The video footage of the Sydney shark attack rapidly went viral, while the conflict in Ukraine has the unfortunate distinction of being referred to as ‘the first TikTok war’.
What impact could this have on our children?
Ongoing exposure to graphic and disturbing media content has the potential to normalise this content for children. This means children view this as normal.
Is the acceptance of violent and graphic imagery the reality we wish to create for our children?
While a continuum of responses is usual, we should be careful making assumptions about the impact on children.
Children may feel stressed and anxious about what they’re seeing and hearing in the media. The content we’re considering involves depictions of injury and death.
These are not issues our society addresses effectively. Often these ideas are sanitised, if discussed at all.
‘Vicarious trauma’ arises from continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence. The concept is typically considered as a workforce issue (for example, affecting emergency services workers).
However, it is conceivable that a similar effect may occur for children regarding ongoing exposure to disturbing media content. This could lead to various issues including difficulty managing emotions, distraction, and feeling vulnerable.
Negotiating complex issues and disturbing content as a parent/caregiver
There are several practical things you can do to manage your child’s exposure to complex issues and disturbing content.
First, try to be aware of the content your children are accessing, which can be easier said than done. How is the technology used to access information in your household? This is arguably part of the issue.
Internet filtering software might be used, but is not infallible. Similarly, you might consider restricting internet access in bedrooms and private spaces.
However, both approaches will likely cause household conflict and have practical difficulties around homework completion which is now heavily facilitated via the internet.
Creating a safe space to talk about disturbing media content is a valuable strategy. Talking about concerns is psychologically healthy and is important to normalise for children.
Finding the opportunity to talk is an important first step. This might occur naturally in the course of conversation, but you also might need to raise the topic. It can be as simple as, “There’s been a lot of media coverage about [insert topic here]. Have you seen it? What do you think about it?”
Conversations shouldn’t be forced. However, you might find children actually want to talk, especially if they’re worried about what they’ve seen.
Showing attention and interest is vital. If you’re going to ask the question, it’s important to listen to what your child is saying. Try to resist the temptation to interrupt and talk over your child. This can sometimes be difficult for parents, but you should be aiming for a conversation, not a lecture.
Your child might have unrealistic ideas and fears about the situation (or these might be well-founded). Reassure children that they’re safe, but don’t make promises that you may not have the control over to keep. Be honest, but cautious with explicit detail, especially with younger children.
Sometimes you might not know what to say. This is okay. You don’t need to have every answer and this can be valuable for children to see.
Ironically, communication may be both the cause and potential solution regarding this issue.
How you communicate with your children is fundamental to developing your relationship and ultimately has the potential to foster your child’s wellbeing and resilience.