Navigating harmful content online: A guide to managing children’s exposure to distressing content online

October 20, 2023

In light of current international events, young people may come into contact with distressing online content. This article has been written to help schools and parents protect and support their children. 


Guidance for schools

Ensure Filters Are Up To Date

Ensure that all of your content filters are up-to-date and activated and that any of the devices your students are using at school [and taking home] are fully protected. You can use this checklist to help you cover the basics:

  • Create a custom blocked word list

  • Create search reports

  • Check video reports

  • Use these tools to get alerts on students searching for blocked words on your list.

Brief Designated Safeguarding Staff Members

If you utilise any form of monitoring technology to detect online risks for the purpose of safeguarding your students, ensure that your designated safeguarding staff are especially alert at this time and prepared to respond should any risks slip through the filtering cracks. If any of your students have already consumed harmful content or are searching for it online out of curiosity, this may be how you’ll find out.

Social Media

If you allow your students to access social media platforms on their school-issued devices for their learning, make sure that your teaching staff is aware of the current threat of violent and inappropriate content suddenly spreading online, and encourage them to do some research around the particulary ‘vulnerable’ platforms. Recently, X (formerly Twitter) has been identified as being most prone to the spread of dis/misinformation and violent content.

Internal Communication

Feel free to inform your staff of this online threat, but be sure to discourage them from seeking out the content themselves to check if it is available. This will potentially cause them emotional distress, which is enough of a negative effect in itself, but it will also contribute to the virality of any of the search terms related to this content. In addition, avoid describing the content in any detail in your communication; use adjectives like ‘disturbing, ‘distressing,’ or ‘upsetting’ to describe it in more general terms.

Exercise Discretion with Students

Please exercise discretion in any communication with your students regarding this online threat, and encourage others within your community to do the same. In particular, avoid raising the issue with students who may not be aware of the potential existence of this type of content so as to avoid them actively seeking it out. This type of content will be particularly disturbing to your youngest students, so be especially mindful of their exposure to it. Your older students are likely to already be aware of what is going on, and a great way to initiate a conversation and invite them to share is by asking them what they already know or have seen/heard and letting them know your staff are available should they need to speak with someone. For talking points, please refer to the parent-focused section of this guide.

Monitor At-Risk and/or Sensitive Students

Given the extremely distressing nature of these current events, we advise that at-risk, vulnerable, and sensitive students be monitored closely, especially those in younger grades. Without referencing the current risk specifically, check in with them about their most recent interactions on and offline. If you notice a young person presenting with signs of distress, we encourage you to follow your procedures for supporting at-risk students.

Parent Communication

We encourage you to follow your existing policies and procedures for contacting parents about any problematic schoolwide events; below, you will find a dedicated section with parent-focused guidelines that we suggest you share with your parent community to help them stay calm and equip them to handle this risk to their children's safety and wellbeing online.

Support Resources

Please encourage anyone who may be at risk or experiencing emotional distress, including worried families, students, or colleagues, to seek support. The following educational and support services are available:

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
Phone support is there all day, every day.
Online support is open from 8 am-midnight every day (AEST).

eHeadspace 1800 650 890
Open 9 am-1 am daily (AEST).

Lifeline 13 11 14
Phone support all day, every day. Online
support 7 pm-4 am daily (AEST).

Beyondblue 1300 22 4636
Phone support all day, every day.
Online support 3 pm-midnight every day.

The eSafety Commissioner's Office:
www.esafety.gov.au/educators

Guidance for Parents

Please keep in mind that even though we make references to age and age ranges here, children can mature and develop at a different pace, and you know your child best. Our general recommendation is that if a child is not independent or mature enough yet, to 1. Care for their own [basic] safety, 2. Navigate social relationships, and 3. Manage their daily responsibilities in age-appropriate ways, they are not yet ready for independent ownership of a personal smart device or an unsupervised social media account.

The Basics of Online Safety: Parental controls and privacy settings

Ensure that the parental controls on your child's devices are activated and that any platforms they have access to have child safety measures in place; on YouTube, that means turning on YouTube Restricted Mode, on Google setting up Google Safe Search as well as Google Family Link, and on Tik Tok setting up Family Pairing. Both Instagram and Snapchat have taken steps to improve their parental control options over the past few years. As a general rule, it is not recommended that children younger than 13 have independent access to social media platforms (with the exception of YouTube, and that’s only if parental controls and privacy settings are activated). For children 13+, ensure that they always enter their true age when creating a new social media profile, as that sends them to a 'safer' and more age-appropriate version of the platform.

Should I talk to my child? 

You may wish to be more present than usual in your child's online life for a period of time. This doesn’t mean heavy monitoring (unless your child is young and not ready yet to manage their own tech use), but instead, keep a line of communication open with them about any upsetting content they may encounter and observe any emotional or behavioral signs that suggest they may have seen it already (more on that below).

How should I decide if deleting social media apps from my child’s device is the right thing to do at this time?

There are various things to consider in making this decision. First, you know your child better than anyone - their age may be a factor in this decision, but so is their maturity. Important signs are also their ability to discern between real vs fake online content, credible vs dubious news sources, and reliable vs unreliable individuals and organisations to follow online. For younger children, you may want to consider removing social media apps so that they don’t accidentally see something distressing, but if you have an older child in high school - we recommend you have a conversation with them before you come to this decision. For older children, some alternative approaches are limiting their news consumption to only one news source and/or checking on the news only once a day (or less frequently), not engaging with friends and followers online in discussions around politics at this time, and under no circumstances clicking on dubious-looking links.

How are the different social media platforms responding?

Most social media companies are reiterating their platforms’ Policies and Terms of Use' and assuring the public that they are doing everything they can to remove inappropriate content as soon as it goes up. Conversely, X (formerly Twitter) has stated that: “In these situations, X believes that, while distressing, it is in the public’s interest to understand what is happening in real-time.” It is also important to note that X has had several fake videos go viral on their platform already. If you or your child frequent this platform, we recommend you remain vigilant. You may wish to consider suspending use for a period of time. 

How can I talk to my child about staying safe online? 

The best approach is part-telling and part-modeling. To prevent children from becoming overwhelmed by fear and the threat of online danger, it's important to strike a balance between caution and the enjoyment of positive online content. Some of the following suggestions may help no matter your child’s age.

High schoolers: If you have older children, you may wish to talk to them about your own fears and sadness about what is going on. Yes, children need to know that we will keep them safe, but that doesn’t mean we can’t show them our emotions and vulnerabilities too. Encourage them to ask questions and seek out more information (or not, whatever they prefer), and emphasise the importance of using their media literacy skills when choosing news sources. Discuss the potential for very disturbing content making its way online and how important it is to talk about that experience, should it happen. Practices like taking intentional social media breaks or watching favourite movies together as a family can be incredibly helpful. If you have a creative child, encourage them to use their art as a self-care tool, and if you are a religious or spiritual family, engaging with those practices can bring you much-needed balance as well.

Primary Schoolers: Since your primary school child is less likely to have come across content on this topic online but may have still heard about it from friends, their family members, or classmates, feel them out by asking some general questions about how their day went or any interesting, unusual, or worrying information they may have come across recently. If you think they can emotionally handle it, explain the conflict in very simple terms and say that they might notice other grown-ups or children talking about it over the next few weeks - it’s big news right now, and lots of people are talking about it. Because it’s quite a serious and scary topic, ask them to come to you first with any questions they might have or in case they see anything online that really upsets or scares them. Make sure they know they will not get in trouble for that but that you do want to know about it because not all news and information we see online can be trusted, and some of it can be extremely upsetting for young children. Make sure they feel safe with you, with their friends, and at school.

Kindergarteners: With this age group, the chances are lowest that they have encountered content of this nature, and you can also control their access the easiest. They are also the most likely group to exhibit signs of having seen or heard something disturbing - it will show up as a sudden change in behaviour, or you will see traces of it in their play. If you do notice this, resist the urge to stop or interrupt them; observe them for a little while and notice the themes and patterns that emerge. Engage them by saying something like “I’ve noticed you doing x, y, z …” or “I’ve noticed you playing x, y, z …” Don’t hesitate to play along - children process complicated information by role-playing when they’re too young to understand it mentally. Do what you can to help your child feel safe, and be sure to maintain their routines and the quality time you spend together. If they notice you behaving in a different way and ask questions like, are you or why are you sad, don’t negate their observation but answer it in very simple terms, like I read/saw something today that made me sad.

What if my child doesn’t want to talk about what they have seen?

This can certainly happen, and it is a normal reaction. There are various reasons that a child may not want to talk about something like this: it may be too disturbing or cause too much distress, they may not be ready to discuss it, they may fear getting into trouble, or they may simply not have the words to express how they feel. Regardless, you can always support them by trying to create a safe space for them to open up and offer them unconditional support. Spend time with your child without the pressure for them to do or say anything; often, other activities, like a board game or a walk, can open the door for a spontaneous conversation around a difficult topic. 

Talking to other parents

Feel free to share your personal experiences around these events with other parents and, if needed, help them find out if their child may have encountered any distressing information about these events already; however, if that does turn out to be the case, be aware that seeking out information raises its viewership and popularity. Sharing links or descriptions in online groups or messaging apps like WhatsApp will do the same. Also, remember to always double-check if any children are around when you’re discussing these topics with other adults.

How can online images and/or videos cause distress to my child?

At the very least, one-off or otherwise brief interactions with this type of content can shock your child and leave them with thoughts and emotions they simply can’t understand. Research has shown that these brief moments of intense stress don’t necessarily lead to long-lasting effects, and they can usually be worked through if the individual is able to talk about them as soon as possible after exposure. When it comes to more long-term effects, research after the events of 9/11 found that the consumption of hours of continuous broadcasting of distressing videos caused a significant increase in individuals across the United States reporting symptoms of stress and/or trauma. This is called Vicarious Trauma or Secondary Trauma, and it can go as far as contributing to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms in some individuals.

What are some things that I should pay attention to in my child?

Look for signs of behaviour change. You know your child best - if there are changes in behavior or mood, pay attention to those signs and use them as a conversation starter.

What are some signs of distress?

Signs of emotional distress can vary with age, and different children may also exhibit these signs in different ways depending on their personality and levels of maturity. This list is by no means exhaustive, and please note that it is also not an attempt to diagnose or offer medical advice.

  • Clinging to caregivers more than usual

  • Regressing to the behavior of a younger child, for example, a primary schooler acting like a toddler

  • Increased signs of separation anxiety or withdrawal

  • Changes in emotional displays - could be increased crying, anger, or other displays of emotion

  • Increased irritability

  • Increased hyperactivity or decrease in energy

  • More demanding

  • Nightmares or interruptions in sleep

  • Too much or too little sleep

  • Changes in food consumption or trouble digesting food

  • Physical complaints like head or tummy aches

  • Increase in generalised fear

  • For older children, consumption of substances like alcohol or drugs.

Moving forward

To guide what content your child consumes online, consider setting up a Family Digital Agreement. By outlining rules for what your children can watch on television and online and which platforms they can access, you can help manage their technology use and content consumption and ensure they are fully aware of your expectations around their online behaviour. Because inappropriate content often slips through the cracks, remind them on a regular basis that they will not be in trouble if they come to you and tell you that they’ve seen something they shouldn’t have. Observe your child during times when dangerous viral trends or news about traumatic world events overpopulate the online world, and ensure that they know you are always a resource for comfort and information.

How do I know when to seek additional support?

Making the decision to seek additional support is not always easy or clear-cut. If changes in mood or behaviour persist without getting better, it may be time to seek outside help. Other signs may include your child coming to you with a problem you’re not sure how to handle. Your child may also ask to speak with a counsellor or therapist themselves.

Support Resources
The following free educational and support services are available to you and your family:

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
Phone support is there all day, every day.
Online support is open from 8 am-midnight every day (AEST).

eHeadspace 1800 650 890
Open 9 am-1 am daily (AEST).

Lifeline 13 11 14
Phone support all day, every day.
Online support 7 pm-4 am daily (AEST).

Beyondblue 1300 22 4636
Phone support all day, every day.
Online support 3 pm-midnight every day.

The eSafety Commissioner's Office:
www.esafety.gov.au/educators


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