As an adult you have probably encountered content online which you found unpleasant, upsetting, or which made you angry or uncomfortable. Someone may have even shown you something which they found funny, and you found disturbing. For young children, their response to negative content online can be very pronounced and continue for a significant period of time.
Supporting your child
When we feel shocked or frightened, our bodies can unconsciously respond with increased adrenalin levels, accelerated heart and lung functions, and other physiological reactions. How children experience upsetting online content and how they express their distress also depends on the child’s age and level of development. Children will react individually, but exposure to the types of content discussed can be traumatic, and may result in confusion, adverse physical and/or psychological effects, e.g., withdrawal, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, aggression. Some older children may act unconcerned at the time, or not understand what they have seen until a later stage in their development when the effects may surface.
If a child is displaying symptoms of trauma after being exposed to something online, it’s important to deal with the trauma first, before trying to discuss the content in any depth. Children can rebound more quickly from exposure to upsetting online content with the support of caring adults, but don’t be surprised if it takes a little while for things like sleep patterns to return to normal.
To find out more about specific taumatic reactions of children you can check out the American National Child Traumatic Stress Network guidelines for parents.
Tips for caregivers if your child is very upset…
- Take it seriously.
- Try not to assign blame to anyone regarding how they came across the material.
Reassure them that it isn’t their fault.
- Provide comfort and assurance.
- Normalise their response, e.g., ‘It’s normal to be scared / angry / upset / confused’.
- Make sure that they know you are glad that they came to you about it.
If intense feelings or behaviours persist, seek out professional help for your child.
Try to avoid –
- Trivialising it by saying that the material may not be real; (it is important to deal with their feelings first).
- Taking away the technology. This will make them less likely to come to you if something goes wrong in the future, and can make them feel like they are to blame.