YWCA New Britain

How to Parent in the Age of Social Media

By Tracey Madden-Hennessey

In a recent story in the Washington Post, writer Devorah Heitner, discussed how quickly news and images travel through the airways. Children, particularly those with cell phones, are likely to see news images that are “raw” and that “haven’t been edited, interpreted or contextualized.” She states, in a significant departure from the past, our children do not first see or read the news together with us first, but are exposed many times, through social media before we have a chance to discuss it with them.  Caroline Knorr remarked in her blog post, Parenting, Media, and Everything in Between, that the “tweets, posts, and breaking news alerts” expose children to news stories and political debates “that can seem scary and overwhelming.” Further she states, younger children (elementary and young middle school students) “are more likely to feel “worried, frightened, angry, or even guilty.  And these anxious feelings can last long after the news event is over.”

Both writers offer advice to help parents guide their children through the media maze, and both are in agreement; parents must be proactive about young children’s media access and help them navigate this difficult landscape.  Parents should take their cues from the age and maturity of their children and use language and concepts that their children will understand.

For younger children, (and even older ones), reassuring them that they are safe, and that you are open to talking and listening, are important first steps.  If you are watching the news, talk with your child about what you are both seeing and hearing.  Offering your perspective can help them process what is being discussed.  Both writers indicate that it’s important for parents to regulate and consider their own feelings and reactions before they begin the discussion.  Staying calm and rational are important to children feeling safe.  Heitner also says, “get specific” about any concerns that you may have; telling them exactly what makes you anxious.  Watching you process the news in a healthy way, role models the way to handle their own anxiety.

Know your child.  It’s better to limit exposure to those children sensitive to distressing news and images.  Repeated exposure to threatening pictures and new stories, makes the danger seem closer than it is.  You may have to monitor your own media viewing.  Although it’s important to acknowledge a child’s fears, stresses Knorr, it’s also ok to take a media break and watch something light hearted together.

Knorr suggests proactive parenting and taking action as a family to help those affected by the news, is empowering and fights feelings of hopelessness in the face of adversity.  Suggestions include:  writing postcards to politicians, raising funds or donating part of an allowance for disaster relief; attending marches; or assembling care packages.

When children are old enough to have and use cell phones or tablets, monitoring where their social media takes them and understanding the platforms where they may receive information are important steps.  Heitner reminds adults that Youtube, Snapchat and Twitter aren’t curated so using these platforms with guidance is recommended.  Discussions with older youth, (middle and high school) should include an introduction to the concept of a “filter bubble,” the algorithm used by social media sites to identify and send content to you based upon your preferences and interests.  Heitner recommends the Wall Street Journal graphic “Blue Feed, Red Feed” to illustrate the point with kids.  http://graphics.wsj.com/blue-feed-red-feed/

It’s easy enough for adults to be fooled by “sponsored content” and interpret it as actual news, youth must be taught how to react skeptically to what they see and hear on social media, and how to check reliable sources of news.  Heitner instructs adults to “walk them through a fake news story and show them how to read critically, discern bias, and detect manipulation techniques.”  Rumors can spread rapidly on line, teaching youth to check sources and fact check a story, before reacting (or spreading the news) can help them stay (and feel) in control of the news that impacts them.

Both writers encourage parents to “let older youth, express themselves.”  Teens may feel passionately about a story and, according to Knorr, personalize it, if its an issue that impacts someone they know or their community.  Heitner suggests that, encouraging them to write a blog, get involved with school media outlets, or get training in student journalism or advocacy are ways to provide an active outlet.

To learn more or find the links to the direct stories, see below: