If you’re here, you’re worried about what your kid might be exposed to on social media. It doesn’t matter if it’s about self-harm, violence, eating disorders, or sexual practices, you’re wondering, "Could any of that harmful content make its way into my kid’s social media feed?”
As parents, we get it and we have a hard truth to break to you.
It’s not a question of “if” but “when”.
Every 39 seconds, TikTok puts pro-self-harm or pro-eating disorder videos in front of kids on its platform.
By the age of 16, 56% of teens have seen explicit materials online.
46% of teens report being shown troubling posts they didn’t want to see while scrolling social media.
58% of kids who viewed sexual content found it accidentally.
In other words, if your kid has online access, they’ve been exposed to explicit or disturbing content.
Unfortunately, it’s not up for debate. The research is there and shows the behavioral changes kids might develop from exposure to violent, self-harming, or sexual material. They may begin showing signs of:
Aggressive behavior (like fighting)
Now, let’s pause for a moment before you rush off to cancel every social media account your kid has.
The problem isn’t just social media.
Think about it.
Kids can be exposed to this kind of content anywhere. They might see extreme violence on one of their favorite shows or be shown explicit content on a classmate’s phone between school periods.
There isn’t a way to completely remove the possibility of exposure.
More importantly, research found that kids who hadn’t been prepared by their families to handle such content were more likely to be negatively affected by it.
Let all that sink in for a moment.
There’s no way to completely protect our kids from being exposed to harmful content.
Opting out of discussing it and preparing them to respond puts them even more at risk of negative side effects.
That means it’s time to sit down and have a talk with your kids right now.
The best step? Have a conversation about the issue before it becomes an issue.
Think about it like sending your kid into a math test with all the notes and preparation they need to succeed. It doesn’t mean there won’t be tricky questions or they’ll get a perfect score but it does mean they’ll be equipped to handle whatever’s thrown at them.
When you decide it’s time to give your kid access to the digital world, start preparing them as much as possible. Now let’s be clear, the point isn’t to scare them with alarming stats and terrifying stories. That will end up backfiring because kids can sense scare tactics coming from a long way off. They’ll either feel extra curious to find bad stuff on social media (yikes!) or be too afraid to tell you if something does happen (double yikes!).
Here’s what you need to do instead:
Sit down to talk in a comfortable and relaxed environment.
Talk about the positives of social media.
Discuss the reality that they will also see disturbing or explicit content at some point.
Reinforce your commitment to providing them with a comfortable and judgement-free space if anything happens.
As you’re having this conversation, it’s important to set your expectations appropriately. The reality is that your kid will probably not want to talk in-depth with you at that moment but that doesn’t mean your words have no impact.
Even if they’re not responsive externally, they’re taking in and processing your words internally so don’t get discouraged! This type of conversation lays an important foundation for your relationship.
Now let’s move on to the next step.
The best response to a troubling discovery? Leave shame out of the conversation.
We’re parents so we get it. Discovering that your kid has seen pornographic, self-harming, or violent content online is a shock. Our protective drive kicks in and we panic about how to rescue them.
While this first response is COMPLETELY natural, it isn’t helpful. Imagine what your kid will experience:
If they stumbled across this harmful content on accident, they’ll feel ashamed about something that wasn’t their fault and fear being honest with you.
If they purposefully sought out this material, they’ll feel controlled and angry, which will lead to even more defiant behavior in the future.
Take some deep breathes and sit down to talk with them. The one thing you MUST do is keep panic at bay. If your kid senses that you’re starting to feel fear or anger, they’ll shut down and the conversation will go nowhere. As you begin, remind them that you’re not here to shame them but to have a safe discussion about what happened.
How did they find this self-harming, violent, or explicit content? Was it accidental or were they curious about it?
If they sought it out, what made them feel curious about it?
How did they feel after watching it?
Do they want to keep watching more content like it?
After you’ve covered these questions and any more that come up, calmly explain the negative effects that watching self-harming, violent, or explicit content can have on them and align them back with your family values.
Whatever your next steps in handling the situation, communicate the “why” clearly to your kid to minimize the chance that they’ll feel angry, controlled, or rebellious. Whether they face consequences or not, remind them that you don’t feel ashamed of them. There’s truly no easy way to handle this kind of situation and it looks different for every family but you can make it easier on everyone involved!
In the end, the most important way to help your kid through exposure to harmful content online or offline is to have a conversation.
Pretending that there isn’t an issue or responding with panic and shame helps no one. It’ll be hard work but it’s necessary to equip your kid and keep communication open!
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