How to Talk to Students About Emotionally Charged Media

How to Talk to Students About Emotionally Charged Media
How to Talk to Students About Emotionally Charged Media

Academic Leadership//

July 11, 2021

Children today are no longer easily safeguarded from violent and unpleasant events and news around the world—they’re exposed every day via social media and other communication platforms. These platforms are designed to promote content that evokes an emotional response in its users.

ISM recently hosted a webinar with Charles Vergara, Technology Coordinator at Bank Street School for Children. During his presentation, he shared how he observed his students’ shocked and confused responses to upsetting videos and images in the news. While his students’ reactions were surprising at first, Charles noted all media platforms have optimized fear and outrage to hold their viewers’ attention.

Media consumption is only increasing, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the age most children receive a smartphone and access to the internet is decreasing. In 2015, most kids had a phone at around 13–14 years of age, while in 2019, just over half received one at age 11.

What does this mean for how current students interact with media, their perception of the world and others, and how educators should help?

While fully protecting children from what’s on their screens isn’t feasible, there are proactive steps you can take to support them as they try to make sense of what they’re seeing—especially if it may be confusing, overwhelming, or frightening.

Encourage Parents

In most cases, your students’ parents know their children’s emotional and developmental maturity best. Parents’ presentation of troubling events in the world will be shaped by their values and cultural identifiers. Support for your students should start at home. As educators and administrators, encourage your parents to consider implementing the following four suggestions at home.

1. Learn social media’s language.

While the many hashtags and the internet’s fluctuating jargon can seem overwhelming, encourage parents to familiarize themselves with those identifying markers that help users avoid seeing disturbing or violent content across platforms. For example, “NSFW” (Not Safe For Work), which typically indicates sexual content, or “NSFL” (Not Safe For Life), which typically indicates gory depictions of suffering. Parents must explain these terms to their children to prevent them from “learning the hard way.”

2. Initiate conversations about online content.

It’s important to create a safe space at home for kids to process what they take in from social media, the news, and other online platforms. This starts with conversations about what they’re seeing and how they feel about it. Parents can talk with their children about what people struggle with and how that can be manifested. They can then teach their children how to be empathetic, while also defending themselves emotionally. Parents should foster a space for questions and a framework for future exchanges. These conversations don’t have to be out of the blue—encourage parents to incorporate them into their natural discussions of what the world is like. Continually approach topics of this nature to prevent them from becoming taboo.

3. Articulate family values in various contexts.

Advise parents to provide explanations of their family’s worldview and values—not just a list of unyielding rules to follow. Then, when it comes to decision-making, their children will be better informed. They’ll have a sense of the depth and breadth of real-life situations and decisions they see others making online or around them.

4. Proactively answer questions, incorporating real-life experiences.

Frightening events that happen far away can feel immediate due to how they’re emotionally portrayed. This may cause uncertainty or anxiety among children viewing the posts. For parents, the link for this disconnect can be relating an online experience to a lived experience, allowing children to fill in the missing pieces themselves. Doing so removes the abstract nature of the online experience by positioning it in a real-world context. Their children can then build strategies to navigate similar content in the future.

Remind parents that, depending on their children’s age and a question’s topic, they do not have to answer all questions and instead explain why they choose to not.

In the Classroom

Encourage your teachers and staff to initiate conversations providing context, explanation, and information about media today and the internet to equip your students with the language and concepts behind what they may encounter. Consider communicating with parents regarding how and when you may discuss these topics, sharing supplementary resources, so the discussion can continue at home.

The Mechanics of the Internet

Teaching your students about how the internet works and why prepares them to be conscientious users. Here are some relevant topics you can discuss to help them understand the “why” behind today’s online systems.

  • Attention-monetization: How the internet systematically converts its users’ attention into money, which is proven to be most successful through evoking emotional reactions and emotional manipulation.
  • Gamification: The use of game mechanics and design in non-game contexts to engage digitally and motivate people to achieve a goal. For example, McDonald’s Monopoly, Duolingo, and the FitBit app reward users for various tasks or accomplishments to increase user engagement.
  • Profit-seeking: Free apps and games are not just entertainment but are constantly employing strategies to receive their users’ money and attention. Currently, seven out of 10 apps embed commercials that generate payments per display, per click, or per install. Other strategies include requiring subscriptions and offering in-app purchases. Awareness of tactics companies use can help students have context for why they become so easily invested emotionally.

Educating students about the internet and social media is essential to help build their resilience and develop a greater understanding of our new world.


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Present Current Events and Issues

Approaching topics in the news and popular media starts with considering the developmental stages and emotional maturity of different age levels. For example, when discussing a violent news event with elementary students, the conversation could revolve around safety. With middle/high school students, you can reveal what’s behind the violence and discuss potential reasons why that reaction occurred.

Context Is Key

Children of all ages are inundated with emotionally charged media. Addressing the structures of ever-increasing shock and outrage on the internet is essential to supporting students. Help students process their emotional responses, and how to navigate forward thoughtfully.

Real-world experiences are the best anecdotes for counterbalancing tragic, violent, or upsetting events in the media. When you contextualize and humanize what students are exposed to, they can place these events within the larger human story. Whether at home or school, continue to encourage and have open conversations with your students.


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