By Charles Vergara, Technology Coordinator, School for Children
Today, children have more exposure to the media than ever before. It takes seconds for news and events from around the world to reach our children’s devices, often through social media and other communications tools that are intentionally designed to push out content that triggers an emotional response. As adults, while we can’t fully protect our children from the content that is shown on their screens, there are proactive steps we can take to support them as they try to make sense of what they’re seeing that may be confusing, overwhelming, and sometimes scary.
I remember being in front of Bank Street School for Children during dismissal when the news broke about the horrific terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. Upper School students were glued to their phones as images, videos, and other updates took over their feeds. They were agitated, confused, scared, and mesmerized. The attack was broadcast in shards of disconnected violence—unsolicited, unavoidable, and without explanation or context. The event was trending across platforms, so students were standing in groups, swiping between apps, trying to piece together what was happening and how they should respond. They were asking each other, “Was this attack just in Paris or in New York City too?” “Is this even real?” “Is this video of gunfire coming out of a car happening now?” “What should we do?” “What can we do?”
While our students were safely under our school’s orange canopy on the peaceful Upper West Side and their bodies were out of harm’s way, their minds and emotions were wracked by events unfolding across an ocean via personal reaction posts and news alerts across social media. I was struck by the disconnect between the calm safety of our physical environment and the terrifying rollercoaster of emotions rippling through the students. That disconnect has stayed with me.
I do want to mention that there are plenty of examples of violence to illustrate this point, especially toward people of color throughout our country. I selected this moment because I witnessed it firsthand and it exemplifies how our mobile ecosystem can make distant events feel immediate.
Today, nearly six years after the Paris attack, the broadcasting of highly emotional content to mobile devices has only intensified. All media platforms, including news outlets and social media, have optimized fear and outrage to hold viewers’ attention. I’ve spoken to teens, young adults, teachers, and mental health experts about this phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, there is no neat solution or a way of preventing moments like these, but certain points can be connected to illuminate a constellation of supports for students.
Like any culture, social media has its own language. Tags like “NSFW” (Not safe for work, generally indicating sexual content); “NSFL” (Not safe for life, generally indicating gory depictions of suffering); and age warnings on most media can help users avoid seeing disturbing or violent content as they navigate different platforms. Unfortunately, most children learn about these warnings the hard way. Knowing these and other tags will help you support your child with expertise, rather than with fear, anger, or anxiety.
How parents present troubling events in the world will be shaped by your family’s values, its cultural identifiers, and your child’s emotional development. For example, I live in Putnam County, NY, where acts of right-wing aggression occurred before the 2020 presidential election. I felt that it was important to explain the hostile climate to my 6-year-old son and affirm his safety. Later, when we were bombarded by images of the January attack on the Capitol, he had some background knowledge about how violence is used as a tool for exerting power. I answered my son’s questions to the best of my abilities, and while the event still resonates with him, his questions are now inspired more by curiosity than anxiety.
Diverse, real-world experience is the most effective counterbalance to the often exploitative presentation of media. Growing up in New York City, as our students are and I did, offers many ways to cultivate resilience, insofar as it’s hard to live in this city without witnessing the full range of humanity. Lived experiences have essential physical and mental components necessary for growth and disturbing online content is usually less impactful. However, the incomplete nature of the online experience can leave lingering anxiety that requires work to resolve. Not having the pieces to sufficiently explain what has triggered anxiety and fear means that any resolution will require contextualization and an explanation of how you can remain safe. Connecting an online experience to a lived experience can be the link that allows children to fill in the missing pieces themselves. This works by removing the mystery from the online experience, situating it in a familiar, real-world context; and, most importantly, it helps the child build strategies to navigate similar content in the future. However, it is not always helpful to answer all of a child’s questions, and if you choose not to, you should still provide an explanation for your choice. I’ve found that even young children have some awareness that the adult world contains corners they’re not ready to explore.
Apps like Family Link (Chrome) or Screen Time (iOS) can be used to limit access to other apps and sites and to document search history. This is important because students often feel shame and guilt after seeing disturbing content and are reluctant to seek out adult advice. Parents can use these monitoring tools to gauge when support is needed, even if their child does not share what they’ve encountered.
While engaging our 13/14s recently, they insisted that if a student shares a disturbing internet experience with their parents, it is essential that parents avoid angry, stressed, or punitive responses. Coming for help when feeling guilty is hard and must be met with calm understanding; otherwise, parents risk closing the door to future communications.
Given the dramatic increase in learning and socializing that has happened through screens and a decrease in real-world adventures due to COVID-19, this issue is particularly acute for our students. While the pandemic has made limiting social interactions and public outings the overall safest choice, there is a cost. Addressing the structures of ever-increasing shock and outrage on the internet and “attention monetization” is critical to helping us build children’s compassion, resilience, and understanding of the real world.
Below are a few resources that might help your family as we all continue to maneuver this ever-changing online world.
- 5 Ways Parents can Help Kids Balance Social Media with the Real World
- Parent’s Guide to Social Media Use for Kids
- Social Media Facts and Advice
- The Role of Parents in Digital Safekeeping and Advice-Giving
- Why It’s Never Too Early to Teach Your Child Good Social Media Habits
Charles Vergara, SFC ’95, is the Technology Coordinator at the Bank Street School for Children. While Charlie started in this role in 2014, this was not his first tenure at the school. He graduated from the School for Children in 1995 and says, “As an SFC alumnus, it’s exciting to give back to a school that did so much for me as a child.”
Bronx High School of Science
University of Wisconsin, BA, English
Teachers College, MA, Math Science Technology and Communication
Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, EdM, Independent School Leadership
Please feel free to reach out directly to Charlie to talk about technology at Bank Street or at home. He can be found in 410B and at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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