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Helping children recover from a traumatic experience online

A study by Plan International UK recently found that 80% of the pupils it surveyed said they want lessons on what to do if they see something upsetting online. The findings suggest young people are accessing unsettling content online, but don’t know what to do or how to respond to it.

Parent Zone’s Yusuf Tamanna looks into how young people are coming across offensive content when they’re online and how you can help them recover from it.


What types of content are children viewing online?

With smartphones, tablets and social media, children are exposed to different types of information every day. However, not all the content they view is suitable or appropriate for them and it can lead to some young people being traumatised or deeply affected by it.

Graphic images of terrorist attacks, such as the Manchester Arena bombing and Westminster Bridge attack, can find their way onto children’s social media accounts just by going viral. In other cases, young people can experience something traumatising when they’re online, such as bullying or discrimination based on gender or race from friends or strangers.

But there is also content that looks child-friendly on the surface, but can be extremely offensive to the young people who watch it. Edited videos of Peppa Pig, Dora the Explorer and other children’s cartoon characters are uploaded to video sharing websites, such as World Star Hip-Hop (WSHH) and YouTube, showing their favourite characters fighting or committing acts of violence.

These videos are created by and intended for adults who find them funny or ironic. But because they feature cartoon characters and the videos don’t come with explicit warnings or disclaimers, children are stumbling across these videos thinking they’re safe watch.

Common behaviour

In order to help a child recover from a bad experience online, it’s crucial to know what the common reactions and behaviours are. ‘They may become withdrawn and communicative,’ says Dr Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of Fundamentally Children. She also says children might do the opposite and talk at great length about what they’ve seen online with their friends to make sense of it all.

‘Children might brag about it with friends at school and encourage them to look at the content too so they feel less isolated.’

Dr Gummer warns this can then turn into a game of upping the ante whereby young people actively seek out disturbing content online to out shock each other.

She notes that the recovery process can differ between young children and teenagers. ‘Young children are easily distracted and are less likely to full grasp the content of what they’ve seen online so the impact might be more transitionary,’ she says.

However, as young children’s imaginations are less constrained, compared to older teenagers, Dr Gummer says they might think what they’ve seen online can happen to their friends and family offline. And while teenagers may have a greater awareness of the dangers of the internet, this doesn’t mean they are better equipped to cope with what they see online.

Helping children recover

Dr Gummer advises talking to children about what they’ve seen online as part of the recovery process. ‘Try to understand exactly what they’re upset about. Sometimes it’s the content, other times it’s the feeling of shame or embarrassment from seeing something disturbing.’

She suggests having an open and honest discussion about safe internet use in general as it will empower children to be able to make their own decisions about what they view online.

Similarly, Dr Maite Ferrin, consultant psychologist at Re:Cognition Health, says it’s important to encourage children to think critically of what they read and watch online.

‘Make children better critics of what they observe on social media; not everything that is shown is real and not everything that happens in our lives needs to be shown online,’ says Dr Ferrin.

Furthermore, if a child does have a bad experience online, use it as a lesson and not a reason to punish or criticise their actions.

‘[Don’t] totally prohibit any further internet use as this might have an even greater negative impact on their self-esteem and social lives.’

To prevent a situation where a young person views upsetting content online, Dr Gummer recommends having all the correct privacy and parental controls in place.

‘Maintain an open dialogue about young people’s online lives. Conversations with trusted adults are vital and can help young people develop skills to deal with disturbing content,’ says Dr Gummer.

Finally, she says to take an interest in what young people are doing online and how they’re using the internet. ‘Keep up with the common viral trends and patterns young people are getting involved in, so if a child does approach you for help they know you don’t come across like a dinosaur who doesn’t understand modern life.’


Further reading:

Recovery: when things go wrong online.

‘We need to address recovery as a matter of urgency.’