Ten tips for teens and caregivers when social media contains upsetting or graphic news, images and videos
By Dr. Sheila Modir, pediatric psychologist at CHOC
In today’s world, social media plays an important role in our everyday lives. While it keeps us connected and informed about the latest news, it can also expose us to scary or violent content, sometimes without our choosing.
You may be causally scrolling through your Instagram or TikTok and suddenly see a disturbing image or receive news about a global conflict, catching you off guard and impacting your mood.
Although it is important to stay informed, the unanticipated nature of the content can stay with you, replaying itself in your mind. Whether you are a teen trying to figure out how to protect your own mental health, or a caregiver looking for ways to protect your child and yourself, these 10 tips can help:
1. Check in before clicking.
Before entering a website or clicking on an image or video, check in to make sure you are in the right head space to take this content in. Being mindful of your news intake can help you pause and be selective in what you view.
2. Educate yourself about yourself.
Take a moment and know what your social media limits are. Ask yourself whether you can handle viewing violent images or disturbing news clips. To understand your limit for specific content, pay attention to how certain content impacts you physically and emotionally. If the content triggers physical reactions like your heart beating faster, your mood changing, or if the image or video keeps replaying in your head, consider these signals from your mind and body as valuable cues. Listen to what they are telling you.
3. Remember that curating your content doesn’t mean you don’t care.
In moments of conflict and war, graphic and distressing imagery may surface on the internet. If you choose not to view these images, that doesn’t mean you don’t care about what’s happening. Instead, it can show that you know your own emotional boundaries and it can give you space to engage in different, equally significant ways.
4. Find ways to advocate offline.
There are ways to make a real impact by supporting causes you care about outside of the internet world, but you can use the internet to help search for these efforts. For example, you can call your local politicians or representatives as this is a direct way to make sure your voice gets heard. You can also volunteer for different nonprofit organizations that are helping the cause you are interested in and this way you are contributing directly to their mission. If you are an artist, consider using your talent to create art or music that reflects your feelings about the cause you support. Your work may serve as an inspiration to others to engage in offline ways!
5. Limit your exposure.
It is important to set time limits when you use social media and remember to take digital breaks. This might involve scheduling specific windows during the day for going online and avoiding times like before an exam, an important meeting, or bedtime. Research has found that teens who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media are more likely to have mental health problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that families work together to create a structured social media plan to help manage time spent online. Additionally, other ways to limit exposure include temporarily turning off notifications on apps or muting content or followers for a specific period of time.
6. Stay informed in moderation.
If there are current events happening that you want to stay up to date with, then do so, but in moderation. One way is to read the post while avoiding the comments section. Comment sections are frequently filled with personal opinions, which can spark heated debates.
7. Be aware of misinformation.
The internet is full of information, but not all of it is true. Some people share things based on their feelings rather than facts. If you come across something that stresses you out, pause for a moment, and consider doing some fact-checking using trustworthy sources.
8. Practice a mindful moment.
For every one minute spent online, spend 30 seconds in meditation or mindfulness. This can help you be aware of how much time you are really spending online, as well as help you decompress afterward. In other words, if you spend 30 minutes online, follow that up with 15 minutes of mindfulness after. For more ways to include mindful moments in your life, please visit this resource.
Mental Health Education Program (MHEP) webinars
9. Seek social support.
One great thing about social media is our ability to connect with our friends and family. You can spend your budgeted social media time connecting with your friends about shared interests, and seeking support, strength, and joy during difficult times. Let your community know what you can and can’t take right now so they don’t accidentally tag you or share something with you.
10. Find ways to disconnect and distract.
Consider taking an extended break from your digital device. Take the time that you would normally spend online, and do something fun instead. Perhaps there is a book you have wanted to read or an exercise class you have been thinking about taking but haven’t had the time to. Noticing the minutes you spend online, and replacing screen time with hobbies can be helpful for your mental health.
Remember that protecting your mental health in this digital age is an ongoing process because the internet keeps changing, and so do we. Take time to assess and re-assess your personal limits and what content works best for you. By being proactive in your social media usage and making mindful choices, you can continue to engage with your online community while honoring your boundaries.
If you find yourself overwhelmed or deeply affected by what you have encountered on social media, consider speaking with a mental health professional for additional guidance and support.
Resources for parents and caregivers about screen time for kids and teens
- CHOC’s guide to social media
- CHOC’s recommended readings about social media
- CHOC’s social media tips for kids and teens
- How much screen time is OK for my kids?
- Are some types of screen time better than others?
- Healthy digital media use habits from the National Institute of Health (NIH)
- American Psychological Association (APA)’s health advisory for social media use
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The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.