Monitoring your child’s news and social media intake during COVID-19

By Dr. Chris Min, pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s and Luiza Mali, predoctoral intern at CHOC Children’s

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have experienced a thirst for answers and information — especially to help guide our behavior and try to put our worries at ease. Due to social isolation, many of us have looked online and to social media to fulfill those needs. From receiving breaking news on our smartphones regarding updated guidelines to scrolling through our social media feeds to learn about  numbers of infections, we are constantly bombarded with information. As parents, many of us have wondered whether our children’s increased exposure to repetitive and gloomy news is harmful, and whether the information our children consume may come at a cost.

What happens to our minds when we are overexposed to the news

Research shows that continual media coverage of community or health crises — such as COVID-19 — overexposes us to negative information, and this information becomes overrepresented in our minds. This overexposure increases the perception of threat and makes worry more difficult to control.

These psychological risks are particularly true for children, who tend to be more emotionally reactive or have difficulty dealing with uncertainty. For younger children, intaking a huge amount of information may be confusing, overwhelming and raise more questions than answers. For older children and adolescents, particularly those who are worriers, the likelihood of something bad happening may seem like a certainty to them, and that can lead to catastrophic thoughts about the present and future.

Should I isolate my child from the news during COVID-19?

Isolating your child from any information regarding COVID-19 can create a variety of problems. Many times, parents assume that their children are either too young or oblivious to changes in their environment to wonder about why their daily routine looks different. However, children tend to notice these changes, although they may not verbalize their concerns to their parents.

With many changes to their routine and lifestyle — distance learning and social distancing to name a few — that profoundly affect a child’s day-to-day schedule, even young children may notice and wonder why these changes are happening. If parents shield their children from any and all information about why they aren’t going to school or can’t go to their friend’s house, children can feel confused and disappointed.

For older children and teenagers who have unsupervised access to social media and television, parents leave what and how much information is given to their children up to chance. This age group may catch a glimpse of what’s on the news or what friends share on social media, leading to more potential confusion — especially if parents hold back from giving their own accurate take on things.

For these reasons, it is important to ensure that your family is consuming media responsibly and is striking a good balance between absorbing relevant information and protecting your mental health.

Here are some developmentally appropriate ideas to ensure that your family is interacting with media in a careful and helpful way during COVID-19:

Younger children and media

  • Filter the kind of information young children are exposed to.
  • For toddlers and preschoolers, parents will be the ones providing age-appropriate explanations on things like social distancing and hand hygiene on a need-to-know basis.
  • Younger children will benefit from the use of social stories; The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has examples. Children also benefit from informational shows such as the CNN/Sesame Street COVID-19 town hall.
  • Avoid having the TV constantly on to avoid unintended exposure to scary media and inappropriate content.
  • If children ask you questions and you don’t know the answer, look up the answer using trusted sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Older children/teenagers and media

  • Have a conversation with them about COVID-19.
  • Asking open-ended questions to get their understanding of what the virus is, their opinion on how dangerous it is, and their take on the necessity of social distancing can be a great place to start.
  • Getting an idea of what their friends are saying on social media can be helpful, as adolescents tend to shift their thinking toward opinions from their peer group.
  • Once you have an idea of your teenager’s knowledge base and opinions on COVID-19, confirm the right facts. If you aren’t sure, that’s OK! Look up information on reputable sources like the CDC or World Health Organization.
  • Gently challenge any false notions and provide information from trusted sources as evidence.

Media tips for all children

  • Set boundaries. Excessive use of media is associated with negative psychological and physical consequences including depression and obesity.
  • Set limits for daily use. Encourage active interpersonal exchanges such as video chats with same-age peers, and steer children away from using electronics solely for passive activities such as watching videos.
  • Be sure that your child is also spending time away from electronic devices, engaging in physical activity, and other social and educational activities.
  • Model appropriate consumption of media and reactions to news reports. Obtain critical updates from reliable sources once or twice a day.
  • Avoid sensationalism or repeated coverage of the same information.
  • Check in with yourself – am I distressed or agitated? If so, turn it off and pursue other activities. Although some level of worry, confusion, or sadness is to be expected, if your child senses you are feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, they will be more likely become emotionally dysregulated as well. React calmly and provide reassurance so that your child will follow suit.

If your child is expressing excessive worry, anxiety or hopelessness about COVID-19, it may be a good idea to limit his/her exposure to news and social media. With the flood of potential misinformation from social media as well as repeated exposure to distressing  content on the news, your child may start to think that the future is hopeless and that his/her own health is at serious risk. Combat this impression by focusing on the measures that your family is currently taking to limit risk of infection as well as steps that your child or teenager can take to ensure continued health and safety. Take time to have a discussion about interesting and fun activities that your child can participate in that follow the public health recommendations.

Get more information on Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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How teens can deal with bullying: Teen advisers weigh in

One in five students age 12-18 in the U.S. have experienced bullying, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice. More than 70% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools. Kids and teens who are bullied can experience physical and mental health issues, and problems at school.

CHOC Children’s teen advisers share their own experiences observing and dealing with bullying, and what they do to cope. CHOC experts also weigh in on what parents can do to support a child who is being bullied.

Talk openly about bullying

One of the best ways to protect your child from bullying is to talk openly about it, says Dr. Heather Huszti, CHOC’s chief psychologist.

Dr. Heather Huszti
Dr. Heather Huszti, chief psychologist at CHOC Children’s

“Have a discussion about why some kids might be bullies. You can explain that most bullies have low self-esteem and that they bully other people to try to feel better about themselves,” she says.

CHOC teen adviser Heather Bisset, age 14, has seen this play out firsthand.

“When someone bullies another person, it is often because they are insecure and do not know how to emotionally handle it,” she says. “A bully does and says things to make others feel hurt or down, and if you do not show a response, they will most likely leave you alone.”

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Heather Bisset, a CHOC Children’s teen adviser

Dr. Huszti also recommends parents ask open-ended questions of their children such as, “Is there anything going on at school?” or “Is there anything I can help you with?”

She adds that this approach usually works better than firing off a list of specific questions and can facilitate a bond between parent and child that will encourage them to open up to you when something is affecting them.

Find a trusted adult to talk to

CHOC teen adviser Zoe Borchard, age 15, knows the benefits of having someone to talk to when you have been bullied.

“At a high school football game, a girl that I don’t even know called me stupid along with a bunch of other nasty words behind my back. When I heard what she had said, I thought it wouldn’t affect me at first, but it started to eat away at me. I walked away to a quieter area during halftime and called my mom. I told her what happened, and it made things a million times easier to process and even let go,” she recalls. “To this day, I’ll call my mom every time I need help. If you can find someone you trust to share your problems with, it lightens your emotional load and gives you room to breathe and feel better.”

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Zoe Borchard, a CHOC Children’s teen adviser

Teens can look beyond their parents in finding someone to talk to.

“The best advice I could give someone who is being bullied is to talk to an adult you trust and know is willing to help you,” says CHOC teen adviser Carina Alvaro, age 16. “This could be a teacher who has openly expressed willingness to help, or another trusted adult who can help you resolve these problems.”

choc-childrens-teen-adviser-carina
Carina, a CHOC Children’s teen adviser

Teens and cyberbullying

Nearly 15% of high school students have experienced cyberbullying, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Cyberbullying can include text messages, instant messaging and other apps, social media or gaming.

CHOC teen advisers see a clear link between social media and bullying.

“Social media plays a part in bullying because it’s a lot easier to target someone and attack them online,” says Sanam Sediqi, age 16, a CHOC teen adviser. “On social media, everyone is hiding behind a phone or computer screen, so they more freely throw out hurtful comments towards the victim, often without actual consequences.”

choc-childrens-teen-adviser-sanam
Sanam, a CHOC Children’s teen adviser

CHOC teen adviser Layla Valenzuela, age 14, agrees.

“Having the power of technology comes with responsibility. When you send a message, people can’t see your face or hear your voice, so there is no way of conveying sarcasm or playfulness,” she says. “A simple joke could be interpreted in an unintentional, harmful way. Being responsible for everything you do online is a huge part of being considerate and staying away from bullying.”

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Layla, a CHOC Children’s teen adviser

Social media and technology use contributes to a rising number of mental health concerns in young people, says Dr. Christopher Min, a CHOC Children’s psychologist.

“Technology is great, but it has consequences, especially on our younger population,” he says. “it’s made teenage culture very unstable.”

Tips for staying safe online

Dr. Min offers the following tips for parents on how to keep kids safe online:

  1. Monitor teens’ social media use
  2. Encourage teens to get together in person
  3. Remember that parents control access to social media

For teens, his advice includes pausing before posting.

“When you’re ready to post something, pause for five to 10 seconds to consider your actions, the post’s meaning and the possible consequences,” he says. “This will help you avoid posting things you don’t want cemented on the internet forever.”

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Dr. Christopher Min, a pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s

What to do if your child is being bullied

There are several things parents can do if they learn their child is being bullied, Huszti says, including:

  1. Inform your child’s school about bullying
  2. Talk to the bully’s parents about the behavior
  3. Help your child build up their self-esteem. The more solid their self-esteem, the less impact a bully’s behavior will have on their overall well-being.
  4. Monitor your child’s online activity.
  5. Remind your child of the trusted adults in their lives in whom they can confide.
  6. Pay attention to signs in your child that show something is wrong, such as acting withdrawn, irritable or sad; or changes in appetite or sleep. Some children will show none of these signs, so an open dialogue with your child is key.
  7. If your child needs additional support, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric psychologist.

Stay Informed about Mental Health

CHOC Children’s has made the commitment to take a leadership role in meeting the need for more mental health services in Orange County. Sign up today to keep informed about this important initiative and to receive tips and education from mental health experts..



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Back-to-school anxiety remedies

Transitioning from carefree summer days into a structured school day can be stressful for children. From a change in environment to new names and faces, heading back to school can be a stomachache-inducing, palms-sweating time for many kids and teens.

Many parents wonder if kids are faking these feelings to get out of going, but back-to-school anxiety is a real phenomenon, says Dr. Christopher Min, a pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s. Back to school anxiety occurs when nervousness goes into overdrive, causing physical, behavioral or cognitive consequences that can impact a child’s mindset and ability to perform in school.

“It’s easy for us as adults to forget what it’s like to be a kid,” Min says. “It can be really scary.”

psychologist-tips-back-to-school-anxiety
Dr. Christopher Min, a pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s

A child’s job is to go to school, Min says, and their workload doesn’t simply include academics. School is where they learn and practice everything from social skills with peers and authority figures, to learning boundaries and appropriate behavior, to practicing physical activity, to selecting food on their own and eating without their parents.

“The likelihood that at least one of these things will create apprehension or anxiety in kids is great,” Min says. “So many things are packed into one environment.”

It’s important for parents to remember that children are just starting to learn these life skills when they’re in school.

“Not only are kids asked to encounter a multitude of new situations at school, but they’re still developing the skills necessary to succeed,” Min says. “They don’t have mastery of these skills yet; they’re still learning them.”

For parents struggling to determine whether their child is creatively avoiding school responsibilities or dealing with legitimate back-to-school anxiety, Min suggests looking for patterns in behavior.

Look back at their history with school, he says. What tends to happen in the weeks or days leading up to a new school year? How does your child adapt to changes? Does the behavior dissipate as the school year progresses?

“I like to empower parents and remind them that they are the expert on their children,” Min says. “Parents know their own children best. They know what their children do in provoking situations.”

Children are at increased risk for anxiety-based school refusal during periods of transition, such as when they start kindergarten, or move to a new school for junior high or high school, Min says.

“Every kid deals with school-based anxiety differently,” Min says. “However, boys tend to externalize their behavioral, such as acting out. Girls tend to internalize their behavior, which can be interpreted as being moody.”

Once their behaviors are identified, Min encourages parents to help their children cope with their anxiety by practicing easing into the school year.

“As adults, we wouldn’t go into a presentation at work, or show up for a marathon without preparing,” he says.

Kids tend to have a different sleep schedules and less structure during summer months, so in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, start to adjust their sleep and wake schedules.

Min also encourages graduated exposure, where parents can slowly introduce new routines in their child’s day.

“Practice their morning routine before school starts. You can even practice driving to school and show them where you will drop them off and pick them up,” he says.

Making small adjustments at home to help them prepare for the new school year will help them ease into the other transitions that come when school starts.

Although it can be stressful for parents to see their child struggling with a school transition, they shouldn’t immediately jump in to “rescue them,” Min says.

“With school avoidance, if you “rescue” a child or keep them home, that is detrimental because it reinforces their anxiety, and teaches their brain that school is a threat and something to be avoided.”

He encourages parents to partner with their child in managing their anxiety— while still going to school —and over time the anxiety will decrease with repeated exposure.

Stay Informed about Mental Health

CHOC Children’s has made the commitment to take a leadership role in meeting the need for more mental health services in Orange County. Sign up today to keep informed about this important initiative.


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