Helping kids with the negative news cycle

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Written by Cyber Expert:

Jordan Foster

Clinical Child Psychologist

Devastating bushfires, impending ecological disaster, failing economies, violent crimes, and now, a pandemic. With the increasing uptake of smartphones, social media, and online news outlets, how can we help kids and teens deal with exposure to negative news?

It is no longer possible to shelter children from troubling worldwide news (the some 100 million posts under the trending TikTok hashtag #coronatime is evidence of this). Research indicates that consistent exposure to negative news cycles can increase stress, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. In fact, this modern phenomenon is becoming so common it's been given a name ... “headline stress”. To support kids and teens in dealing with what seems to be a never-ending stream of doomsday bearing headlines, it's important that we remain open to communicating with them about what they are seeing online, provide them with the support to build understanding, and give them strategies to help deal with feelings of stress or anxiety resulting from online news. Here's how: 

1. Find out what they know

With news of COVID-19 spread across social media, television, and supermarkets (in particular the toilet paper aisle) it's highly likely that kids/teens have heard or read something about the situation. Fear-mongering headlines and ill-informed social media posts are abundant, so it's important that we determine what exactly they think and know. This discussion is the perfect opportunity to identify and correct any misconceptions. If you yourself are unsure of what's fact and fiction, no problem - get informed together (see step two). 

2. Teach them how to access reputable sources of information 

If children are active on social media, then hearing about the COVID-19 situation is arguably inevitable. Whilst your instinct may be to shelter them from distressing news, providing access to accurate factual resources can be more effective in avoiding the perpetuation of fear-based thinking. Some helpful resources include: 

  • Health Alert Updates from the Department of Health; 
  • Department of Health COVID-19 General Information; 
  • Health Updates from the World Health Organization. 

3. Meet them where they are

If the above aren't quite to your child's taste, meet them where they are with reliable information. If your teen is TikTok obsessed, refer them to the profiles of the International Federation of Red Cross (@ifrc; note: I am not suggesting that you allow your child to download TikTok specifically for this). The World Health Organization can be found on YouTube here.

4. Check in regularly

Make online news a regular talking point in your house. This can be as simple as asking your child if they've come across any interesting news online lately, and letting them know that they are always welcome to ask you questions about anything they see.

5. Give and seek support

Offer your child a break from the news. This doesn't mean cutting off their access to social media. If they accept, help them by reviewing their settings to hide content from certain posters (such as news channels) that are likely to post regularly on the topic. One of the issues that children (and adults) face with exposure to negative news is a feeling of helplessness. Providing your child with an activity or steps that they can take to contribute towards an issue (e.g. fundraising) or improve personal protection (e.g. proper hygiene practices in the case of COVID-19) can help them feel a greater sense of control. Finally, if your child is really struggling, you may consider engaging the services of a youth mental health professional, such as Headspace.

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