Why are images on social networks particularly distressing?
Warfare no longer only takes place on the ground but also on social networks. Even though large platforms are generally obliged to delete violent content, many disturbing images, lurid headlines and upsetting content circulate on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube & Co. in crisis, and it is precisely these platforms that children and young people use as sources of information.
Even if they do not always understand the context, such content is very distressing. This is because the images and videos provide very immediate impressions, while at the same time, children and pupils struggle to process this unfiltered content. Therefore, it is crucial to support them in dealing with worrying situations and discuss the correct way to handle online information.
Barbara Buchegger, the educational director of Saferinternet.at, on the right way to deal with disturbing content online.
How do I talk to children about wars, attacks and disasters?
- Talk objectively about the topic: Firstly, organise your feelings and fears; don't get carried away by your emotions. Refrain from speculating and talk soberly about the topic.
- Take children's worries seriously: Even if children don't always understand exactly what is happening, they do feel the tragedy of unfortunate events and are worried. Avoid trying to appease them, but ask what emotions the reports, pictures and videos trigger. Ask questions that are as open as possible: How do you feel about it? What have you come across on Instagram? Do you discuss the topic at school or with friends? Would you like to know anything about it?
- Explain in an age-appropriate way: Explaining a war, a terrorist attack or a health crisis in a way suitable for children is not always easy. Research possible explanations in advance and consider how to convey the content. Listen carefully and discover which aspects your children or pupils find interesting or worrying. Picture books, stories or role-playing games can be helpful for younger children.
- Refer to news programs for children and young people: We recommend, for example, the Zeit im Bild TikTok channel, Zib Zack Mini - the ORF news program for six to ten-years-old - or Logo!, a ZDF news site for children. Funk, the content network of ARD and ZDF, also offers content for people aged between 14 and 29. However, even with age-appropriate news, be mindful of continuous exposure to sound.
Address the issue of fake news and propaganda
Especially in crises, not only does a lot of disturbing content appear on social networks, but also a flood of false information. Discuss with your children or pupils how to recognise fake news and question online content. Encourage them to look at images and videos critically and consider who posts what and why.
Also, remember that social networks can be used as propaganda, especially during wars and attacks. Explain to children and young people that it is important not to share violent images and videos carelessly so as not to contribute to propaganda, spread false reports and upset even more users.
Tips for dealing with online content
- Not everything that is shared on social networks is true
- Beware of sensationalist headlines and emotional, non-factual reporting
- Do not trust any anonymous source and compare reports
- Check sources carefully: Who published it? Is there an imprint? Does the information come from a reputable newspaper/organisation?
- Report false statements and problematic content
- Do not share or forward anything without careful verification
- Do not share disturbing and upsetting content
How can children avoid disturbing content on social networks?
On Tiktok, in particular, children and young people are often confronted with disturbing content. Such videos appear in the feed even if you don't actively search for them. As soon as you watch one or two clips, the algorithm ensures that such content is increasingly suggested. Without you having to click any further, one video follows the next, and the content becomes more and more extreme.
Even if it is never possible to say exactly how such algorithms work, you can help shape them and break out of your filter bubble to a certain extent: Encourage your children or pupils to consciously search for other content and watch videos that offer a different perspective away from the wrong images. This way, the algorithm "learns" to show them other content. On TikTok, it is also possible to reset the algorithm or filter out certain content (although the latter is only possible if you already know the relevant keywords for the topic).
A temporary break from certain social networks can also be useful to protect yourself from too much stress. Help children and young people to take care of themselves by deactivating TikTok & Co. from time to time and encourage them to consciously turn to other things that are good for them and provide relaxation - whether sport, music or joint activities without mobile phones and the internet.
If you have questions or your children or pupils need help, don't hesitate to seek professional support. You can find a list of counselling centres here.
Find out more about the work of the Austrian Safer Internet Centre, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services – or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.