What to do when your child sees something disturbing online

— Originally published on ABC Life. Article by Grace Jennings-Edquist —

Got kids in primary school or even younger? Chances are you’ve already had a moment of parental panic when they came across something online that wasn’t made for young eyes.

Perhaps your daughter came across an explicit photo on Instagram. Maybe you found your son watching YouTube footage from a terror attack. Or it could be that your kids were exposed to Reddit threads with racial profanities, websites showing photos of self-harm, or pornographic videos.

Try as you might to filter out inappropriate content on the devices your children use, there’s no escaping confronting or inappropriate content in today’s internet-saturated world.

As a spokesperson for the Office of the eSafety Commissioner tells ABC Life: “When it comes to our kids being exposed to disturbing or inappropriate content online, unfortunately it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.”

So what can you do as a parent when your kid comes across something really inappropriate — and you’re worried it could actually cause harm?

“When it comes to our kids being exposed to disturbing or inappropriate content online, unfortunately it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.” — Office of eSafety Commissioner Spokesperson

Prepare early by having ‘the talk’

There are some preventative strategies you can use to help minimise the risks and potential long-term impacts of exposure to confronting content online, says a spokesperson for the eSafety Commissioner.

First up: Start having open conversations around internet safety and strategies for when things go wrong as soon as your kid has access to a device (and we’re guessing he or she already does — so schedule this in your diary ASAP).

Tell your kid there’s a high chance they might come across sites that are scary or inappropriate — which they know, deep down, are not made for children — and that if something online upsets them you’d like them to let you know, advises Martine Oglethorpe, online safety expert and founder of digital wellbeing website The Modern Parent.

It’s also a good idea to name specific things to look out for, such as sites with rude or scary pictures, angry words or swearing.

Some kids are wary of telling an adult about what they’ve seen in case they get in trouble. You can reassure them by saying: “You can come to me, I’m not going to get cross, I’m not going to take your device away,” Ms Oglethorpe says.

To teach very young kids how to identify inappropriate content online, you might also talk about how their body will send them a message if something makes them uncomfortable, says Robyn Treyvaud, Head of Education at Family Insights Group and co-author of The Parents’ Survival Guide to the Internet. For example, when your child comes across confronting content, they might get sweaty palms, their heart might start beating faster, and they could feel scared.

The idea is to “get them in touch with the messages their body send them when they are in an unsafe place,” says Ms Treyvaud.

You can explain to your child that talking to a grown-up about when they have those sensations in their body can help the bad feelings go away.

Get them talking

Suspect your kid’s already struggling after seeing something horrible online? Remain calm.

“A lot of the time when kids do feel disturbed about something, they’ll shut down,” — Robyn Treyvaud

The aim is to make a child feel they can come to you if a similar situation happens in future, and to avoid suggesting the content has traumatised them before you know that’s the case.

It’s a good idea to gently ask your child about what they’ve seen and how they’re feeling, Ms Treyvaud says. The idea is to try to get them to open up and talk about it to help them process whatever has distressed them.

“When we see something traumatising, it’s when we make sense of it and give it some meaning in our heads that we can kind of contain it a bit,” explains Andrew Fuller, a clinical psychologist and author.

“When something seems so random and absolutely ghastly that you can’t make sense of it, that’s when it kind of ricochets around in your head and causes damage.”

When your kid won’t open up

Keep in mind that many kids won’t tell an adult what they’ve seen or how they’re feeling.

“A lot of the time when kids do feel disturbed about something, they’ll shut down,” says Ms Treyvaud.

They may also be embarrassed, or worried they’ll lose access to their devices.

If your child has substantially changed in any way, that might be a sign he or she is distressed.

“You want to make sure you’re monitoring how they’re going by looking out for whether they’re waking up at night or having any other behaviour changes,” advises Ms Oglethorpe.

If you’re noticing changes in your child across the board — that is, your child is acting differently both at home and at school — that’s a red flag and it might be worth seeking professional support from a psychologist, says Mr Fuller.

It’s also wise to trust your gut and your own sense of anxiety.

“Parents are very wise when it comes to how kids are functioning,” says Mr Fuller. “If you’re freaking out, it’s probably best to get some help.”

Telling other parents and authorities

If your kid’s been browsing risqué images at school or glimpsing violent photos at a friend’s house, a conversation with the relevant adult-in-charge is in order.

If the exposure happened at a friend’s house, parents have a right to outline what restrictions they’d like their kids to observe — for example, that they don’t like their child watching media that isn’t rated G, PG or perhaps M-rated, says Ms Treyvaud.

Alternatively, you can suggest that you’d prefer your child didn’t spend any time on the devices while at the friend’s house — you can just say “they have plenty of other opportunities for that,” says Ms Oglethorpe.

There’s usually no need for finger-pointing in these conversations.

If your kid has come across the content at a school, sporting club or other organised venue, it’s “absolutely” worth letting the principal or organiser know, the experts agree.

“Duty of care policies come into play here and there will be procedures to follow if a report is made,” says Ms Treyvaud.

She suggests making a report in writing rather than orally, so there’s evidence of the report.

Explain that some things online are make-believe

It may also help to explain to your child that not all information on the internet is real or helpful, and that a lot of it is pretend and made for adults. You might try explaining that a lot of images and videos online — just like movies — are exaggerated versions of real life and designed to shock, says Ms Oglethorpe.

“It’s about realising that it wasn’t made for them, and it may be really scary but it’s not able to hurt them,” she says.

Put it in context

If your child has seen footage or imagery from a frightening real-life event — for example, a terrorism attack — it’s a good idea to reassure your kids that we live in a very safe country.

It’s also wise to emphasise how rare those events are.

“You’re saying, ‘Look, yes there are people out there who don’t have your best intentions at heart, but there’s also very good people in the world, the vast majority of them are’,” says Mr Fuller.

You might also make the point: “You do need to be aware of risk, but if you base your life on risk you risk some good opportunities.”

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