Technology is opening up the real world for our kids - but are they ready to handle it? And what can parents do to protect them?
If your child has access to a device and a social media feed, you can be 100% certain that they have been exposed to some level of live-streamed violence, possibly including suicides, beheadings, sexual assaults, dead bodies and/or angry mobs chanting obscenities.
Thanks to unmoderated livestreaming platforms like Facebook Live, Live.ly, Bigo and Periscope, raw and disturbing footage scrolls by their eyes in real time - most of the time, before any grown-up has the chance to intervene, block or explain.
How is this affecting our children? And is there anything parents can do to protect them?
Can kids handle it?
The research is clear that violent content does not produce violent kids. But while there is no simple cause and effect relationship, studies do show that consuming graphically violent content in any form CAN lead to aggression, anti-social behaviour and desensitization - especially when there are other risk factors present.
Children are not capable of “unseeing” violence that they encounter online.
“The research is still not adequate for us to come to any real conclusions as to the impact exposure to real world violence has on young people,” says Family Zone cyber expert Martine Oglethorpe, director of the digital wellness consultancy The Modern Parent. The bulk of what we do know, she explains, is based on “static media” like film and television. Research into the impact of live-streamed content - which is more visceral and immediate - is still in its infancy.
“It is safe to say, however, that we do know that those children already exhibiting other risk factors pertaining to violent behaviours - violence or dysfunction in the home, for example - are at greater risk.
“But we can also safely say that any exposure to any child is likely to result in a range of effects from confusing and disturbing to completely devastating.”
Children are not capable of “unseeing” violence that they encounter online. Notes Oglethorpe, “Young people are seeing footage of situations that they are neither cognitively, socially or emotionally ready to process on their own. They are however, often left to make sense of these visuals and even comment, like and share, without having any real understanding of the impact on themselves and others.”
So what can you do to protect your kids?
It’s natural to feel a sense of helplessness in the face of all this. But the good news is that there are strategies mums and dads can use to minimise the risk.
Encourage critical thinking
Even the youngest children can be helped to start analysing online content to become more aware and critical consumers of digital content. Start by directing their attention to context. Ask: Who are the people in this video? What messages are they trying to send, and to whom? Why have they posted this? What information can we know for sure about this situation, and what has been left out - and why?
Keep your finger on the pulse
OK, realistically you’re simply not going to be spending as much time on social media as your children are. But that doesn’t mean you can’t stay current with internet culture and what’s going viral. Remember: kids are generally reluctant to let you know if they’ve seen something disturbing online - usually for fear of having a device taken away - so try to be proactive and stay aware about what’s going around.
Let them feel what they feel
This can be challenging - but it’s really important to encourage them to express whatever feelings have been evoked by watching violence online. And be prepared that their reactions can be confusing and contradictory. There might be fear and excitement mingled, or anger with sadness or stress. Withhold judgment and let them share their responses openly.
But lead them towards empathy
The most dangerous potential impact of consuming online violence is desensitisation - in a word, becoming numb to the pain of others. Encourage them to respond with empathy by asking them how they’d feel in real life if someone they knew was badly hurt. Consider being even more proactive and helping to support victims, if for example the violence is related to a humanitarian crisis.
Use parental controls
Strong, flexible parental controls like Family Zone let you, the parent, block specific social media platforms and live-streaming apps. You can also filter searches for violent or other inappropriate materials, including on YouTube.
When you arm your kids’ devices with Family Zone, you also provide ongoing opportunities to talk to your child about ways to promote their digital health and wellbeing in a way that is both protective and realistic.
Featured image source: Wired UK
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