In the midst of the ongoing international crisis in the Middle East, where images and videos circulating on social media show graphic violence and deadly missile attacks from both Hamas and the Israeli military, psychologists caution about the toll these graphic visuals can take on a child’s well-being.
Militant group Hamas stormed into Israel on Saturday, firing rockets, gunning down civilians and kidnapping others in the country. Israel retaliated with airstrikes on Gaza.
As the conflict rages on, the death toll has hit at least 1,900 as of Tuesday, and disturbing images of abducted, injured, and deceased civilians continue to spread on social media platforms like TikTok, X (formerly Twitter) and Facebook.
“One of the things that we’re constantly searching for is a sense of safety. And when we see this happening in another part of the world, it can interfere with our own sense of safety,” explained Dr. Taslim Alani-Verjee, a clinical and counselling psychologist with Silm Centre for Mental Health in Toronto.
“The bombarding of images and messages can be overwhelming, it can contribute to a sense of unsafety and also a sense of uncertainty which can bring about feelings of anxiety and fear.”
Although the effects of the conflict in Israel are far-reaching, with images broadcast on screens and shared on social media, parents can help their children make sense of the potentially graphic and upsetting images they may be seeing.
Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist based in Toronto, said as Tuesday marks World Mental Health Day, it’s that much more important for people to understand the impact these images have on us, and to better equip ourselves with strategies.
“The constant exposure to violent and disturbing news can have a significant impact on our mental health,” she said, saying it can impact concentration, sleep and emotional distress.
A 2022 study published in Environment Research and Public Health found that the effects of youth viewing violent scenes of armed conflict can cause anxiety, sadness, isolation, distress and elevated perceptions of personal risk.
“Media exposure to terrorism and armed conflict has been found to predict a wide range of functional outcomes in children and adolescents following terrorist attacks including PTS symptoms, aggression, sleep disorders, behavioural withdrawal and the radicalization of ideological beliefs,” the study said.
How to talk to your child about the conflict
When it comes to talking to children about something as complex as the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, Alani-Verjee said it is imperative that parents “address their own emotions first.”
“When we haven’t done that, then we might notice that our own judgments, assumptions and feelings are interfering with our ability to hold space for our young ones,” she said, adding it’s also best to convey objective information.
After that, try and find out what your children know about the situation and make the conversation “about them.” She said if you can correct misinformation, try to, but always do it in a way that is developmentally appropriate.
The way to go about talking about the conflict depends on the child’s age, she explained.
For example, young children may not have the language to communicate their emotions and may express their fears and anxieties physiologically.
“So you’ll see a lot more stomach aches, headaches and just not feeling well. And so if you’re noticing that your young one is communicating things like that, that might be a good time to have conversations with them about what is going on for them emotionally,” Alani-Verjee said.
One way to do this with young children is first to ensure their safety, and second is by “talking in generalities.”
For instance, she said you can say something like, “In that part of the world, a lot of people are hurting right now and they’re trying to figure it out, and they’re not using their words to do it.”
Alani-Verjee said parents can help their children process these feelings through artwork, writing letters and even having fundraisers to help those in need.
“This allows us to remember that even in this state of lack of control and distress, we all still have some power to do something and to do what is right,” she added.
When it comes to older children who may be more exposed to the news and images through social media, she recommends listening to what they have to say when the time is right.
“Have that conversation in a way that you can really focus on them. Usually having a person be able to move their body also helps them process some of the things that are going on,” she explained.
“So a walk becomes quite helpful from a physiological perspective as well. But I would say take your young person’s lead on it. If they’re in the middle of doing homework or talking to their friends, don’t interrupt them with your need to figure this out with them.”
Should you limit social media?
Scrolling through social media and being bombarded with distressing news and images can overwhelm people of all ages, explained Kamkar.
She recommended striking a balance between “tuning” into the news and also taking care of your well-being.
“We can set designated time to catch up on the news, but also how to navigate and limit the excessive exposure that can again impact mood and emotions,” she said.
“We also want to be choosing reliable sources. So we want to get information from trustworthy sources because again, misinformation can exacerbate our anxiety and stress levels.”
Alani-Verjee recommended taking steps like unfollowing specific social media accounts or considering a temporary break from such platforms if you or your child feel overwhelmed by the influx of graphic content.
She also acknowledged the privilege that comes with this ability to disconnect, adding, “In cases where we have the privilege to choose, it’s important to prioritize what helps us stay informed effectively.”
For those who prefer to stay engaged, she advised selecting one reliable source of information. That way “we balance acknowledging what’s going on in the world without overwhelming ourselves with those distressing messages in the process.”
Several school boards across the country have issued statements to parents and students in response to the conflict.
On Sunday, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board statement posted a statement stating how the “news affects all of us, it is especially difficult for Jewish, Palestinian and Israeli students, staff, and families.”
“We know that world events can impact our own community and schools. As we reopen schools on Tuesday, we will be vigilant in our commitment to ensuring students and staff feel safe, respected and comfortable in their learning and working environments. We know that media and social media coverage of traumatic world events can be very distressing, especially for children and teens. We encourage families to monitor media intake.”
The Toronto District School Board sent a statement to parents and caregivers affirming there are many people, including Jewish, Palestinian and Israeli students, who are closely affected.
The statement notes that horrible images of war will affect various students differently and some may need extra support. The school board also suggested beginning the conversation by asking the child or teen an open-ended question about how they feel, instead of assuming they are scared.
Beth Rogers, the director of clinical support services with the Winnipeg School Division, told Global News that principals, teachers and staff members are prepared to respond to any question from students as well as offer clinical services and support.
“The messaging that we’re giving is that we need to be responsive in a developmentally appropriate way to all the students and staff,” she said.
For middle and upper high school students, many youth may get messages through social media, so if the topic does come up, she said it’s important staff members do not talk down to them.
“We need to be offering an opportunity for real and meaningful conversation. What does what they’re seeing mean to them? How do they make sense of it? How does it connect to other things they may have already learned or been exposed to? And they make room for their opinions?” she said.
With younger children, staff members need to just reaffirm their safety, she added.
“And then what we need to do is we need to model as adult teachers, parents looking after our own mental health and that might mean regulating just how much scrolling we do,” Rogers added.
Children and young adults in Canada in need of mental health support and crisis services can contact Kids Help Phone, or text CONNECT to 686868 from anywhere in Canada, any time, about anything.
— with files from the Canadian Press and Associated Press