Parents, talk to your children about what they see online
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OpinionGuest Columnist

Parents, talk to your children about what they see online

"Since Hamas’ attack on Israel, hate speech has surged across the internet. ...As parents, we can’t think 'it’s too late' to begin to promote positive, healthy digital behaviors."

(Image courtesy of Pixabay via Pexels)
(Image courtesy of Pixabay via Pexels)

As much as parents and guardians want to, we cannot fully shield our children from the horrors of war. The digital age has made it impossible to do so.

That point was made abundantly clear in a recent survey from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an independent nonprofit that studies online platforms. ISD analyzed more than 300 posts of videos across Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat that portrayed “graphic, distressing or violent imagery” from the Hamas-Israel War.

This content was easily accessible to children ages 13 to 16, ISD noted: “During the course of analysis, ISD analysts enabled additional content filtering tools, beyond the platforms’ standard enhanced safety functionality for minors. The ‘Sensitive Content Control Feature’ was used on Instagram, the ‘Restricted Mode’ was enabled on TikTok. Despite these safeguards, content containing extreme gore was still accessible.”

It does not take much effort for a child or teen to find these images. Since Hamas’ attack on Israel in early October, hate speech has surged across the internet, namely on platforms like X (formerly Twitter), TikTok, Facebook and Instagram. The New York Times recently reviewed thousands of social media posts with hate-based hashtags, with antisemitic content soaring by more than 919% on X and 28% on Facebook since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

The teen mental health crisis, already a global epidemic, is likely to be exacerbated thanks to these images. How can we — parents, guardians, and caregivers — help our children to not be exposed to these images?

It’s a tall order: Children ages 8 to 12 spend more than five hours per day on screens and devices, according to a March 2022 survey from Common Sense Media. That same study found that teens 13 to 18 spend more than eight hours per day on screen, giving plenty of opportunity for them to be exposed to abject cruelty and violence. And with TikTok and Instagram filtering tools failing to catch such content, it’s up to us as caregivers to help our kids to reconcile the content they may have seen.

I know that talking about subjects like war and gore with a child is not always easy, but a modern parent must be ready to undertake such conversations. And these conversations must be ongoing: We can’t protect our youth from digital threats in just one step. Digital technologies change rapidly, and new threats emerge with the same haste, and only by practicing positive and healthy digital behaviors can we hope to protect our kids from what they see online.

As parents, we can’t think “it’s too late” to begin to promote positive, healthy digital behaviors. We can’t tell ourselves “not my child” or “not my community.” Platforms like Instagram and TikTok are omnipresent, and we can’t fool ourselves into believing that our children “would never” view such graphic content.

We also cannot rely solely on legislation and lawsuits to protect our children from graphic content. While I commend lawmakers and officials for wanting to hold platforms accountable for their roles in the youth mental health crisis, we as parents must be equipped with the resources and tools to help us raise healthy children in a digital era.

And it falls upon us to begin the conversation; punishing a child by taking away devices or their screens will only make social media and other digital content more attractive to them. Ask them about what they have seen and how it made them feel. Be empathetic and understanding of how they feel and encourage them to reach out to you or another adult if they ever see anything online that makes them uncomfortable or that they feel is inappropriate. And remind them that they can always come to you without fear of punishment.

The digital age has made parenting more difficult than any other time in modern history. But we can’t let this difficulty get in the way of our children’s well-being. By talking to our children about what they see online and how they feel, we can make sure the next generation has the resources and support they need to use social media in healthy, positive ways. PJC

Angela Liddle is president and CEO of the Pa Family Support Alliance, which created the Family Digital Wellness initiative.

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