How to speak to children and young people about the war in Ukraine

The world has been shocked by the conflict in Ukraine and the terrible events and images of recent months. At a recent Insafe Training meeting, participants from the European network of Safer Internet Centres heard first-hand about the atrocities which are occurring, and how Ukraine's children and young people are being impacted. Alona Kryvuliak and Yuliia Anosova from La Strada-Ukraine, the Ukrainian Safer Internet Centre, shared their experiences and gave insights into how the Insafe network can also help the ongoing efforts.

Date 2022-07-01 Author BIK Team Section awareness, positive-content Topic media literacy/education, potentially harmful content Audience children and young people, parents and carers, teachers, educators and professionals
Boy sitting behind a computer looking sad

The hotline service offered by La Strada-Ukraine has continued to operate since the start of the conflict and has received almost 32,000 requests to date from children seeking help and support on a range of issues. Not all requests have concerned the internet or digital skills, and the requests have come from Ukrainian children all over Europe, especially as many of them have fled to other countries with their families. Because of language barriers in other countries, these children are still contacting the Ukrainian Safer Internet Centre for support.

The main reasons why children are reaching out are for support on mental health and well-being matters, violence against children, and adaptation to life in another country. When contacts do relate to online issues, the main concerns raised relate to cyberbullying, sexting, and phishing, while mis- and disinformation is also a significant issue. Alona Kryvuliak stated: “The war in Ukraine doesn't only exist as a physical war; Ukrainian children are also at the frontline of Russian fake news.” To give an example, Ukrainian children are at risk of harm from online bots that target them and spread misinformation on social media. Alona continued: “Quite often we are contacted by children who have seen cruel photos of events that have happened during the war. This is very traumatic for children from Ukraine.

Safer Internet Centres across Europe are rallying to support children and families displaced by the war. For example, several Safer Internet Centres have translated their resources into Ukrainian and Russian, or have recruited counsellors who speak Ukrainian to offer support over phone and chat services. Likewise, several Safer Internet Centres are developing special trainings for schools specifically to help Ukrainian children in their use of technology. Moreover, Safer Internet Centres are helping all children and young people who have concerns, or feel anxious and unsettled by what they are seeing on the news and social media, supporting them in developing the necessary media literacy skills to recognise disinformation and directing them to appropriate sources of information.

Talking to young people about the war

As part of the session, a colleague from the Red Cross in Norway (part of the Norwegian Safer Internet Centre) provided an overview of a resource providing guidance on how to talk to children about the war.

Ways in which to support children include to listen, to ask open-ended questions, to let the child set the agenda, and to support the children’s initiatives. In conversations about the war, the most important thing to realise is that a child mostly needs someone to listen to them, and that you should meet them in a supporting and caring way. They do not need someone who just gives solutions to them.

Discussion also focused on how to manage false information on social media, and especially unfiltered information where it is hard to separate fact from fiction. It is important to explore together with a child how the content affects them, to give advice on source criticism, and to be neutral when listening. All children have the right to be supported, regardless of their point of view.

It is crucial to give children and young people information on where to find trustworthy and child-friendly new sources. In this regard, many Safer Internet Centres have developed materials containing useful tips and resources to help parents, carers and children discuss events such as wars, catastrophes, and other emergency situations in a helpful and child-friendly way. Examples include:

See also the article how to identify child-appropriate news and background information for more pointers from a positive online content perspective.

Dealing with disinformation

Mis- and disinformation is a key challenge in the online world, and has become even more prevalent in recent years. Tom Willaert from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Maria Giovanna Sessa from EU DisinfoLab presented an overview of their recent research that evidences growing trends for mis- and disinformation to be shared. In their study, From infodemic to information war, they conduct an analysis of 225 Dutch-speaking far-right and conspiracist Telegram public channels. The findings show the porosity between disinformation linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and pro-Russian war propaganda, and also highlights how this phenomenon fits into a more global trend of convergence of narratives on these two topics.

In the first part of the investigation, the researchers conducted a comparative analysis of fact-checked disinformation about the ongoing conflict across different countries, languages, and platforms. From conspiracy claims to clickbait, similarities emerged with narratives pushed with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The second part of the study concluded that, in order to persist and propagate, disinformation needs to contain predictable, recurring elements but also that “twists and innovations need to be introduced in order to keep up with rapidly changing external events”.

Looking more generally at the spread of disinformation, a representative from TikTok spoke about the importance of ensuring integrity and authenticity on the platform. TikTok’s community guidelines state that there is no room for disinformation, and this is rigorously enforced. In the specific case of the war in Ukraine, between 24 February and 31 March 2022, the safety team at TikTok removed almost 42,000 videos on the topic. 87 per cent of those videos violated TikTok’s policies against harmful misinformation.

Similarly, a representative from Bellingcat, an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists using open source and social media investigation to probe a variety of subjects, provided an interactive example of how online sources can be used to explore and question the validity of certain situations. Many of the techniques are at the core of media literacy education; a topic of focus for all Safer Internet Centres.

Reach out to your national Safer Internet Centre for further information, guidance and support on any of the issues covered in this article, or check the Better Internet for Kids resource gallery for materials on a range of topics in various languages.

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