Helping your teen deal with graphic content

For many of us, technology plays a big part in our daily lives. We use it for work, study and entertainment, and for connecting with others. And while it adds convenience to these parts of our lives, it also means we’re more likely to come across disturbing images and other forms of distressing content.

This can be hard for anyone to deal with, but particularly so for teens who may be more tuned into different types of media and less experienced with dealing with heavy topics.

This can help if:

  • you’ve heard about a trending TV show or movie that makes you uncomfortable or concerned for your teenager

  • there’s graphic content circulating in the media

  • your teenager has seen something disturbing already

  • you're worried about the impact of graphic or sensitive content on your teen.

Infographic called 'Helping your teen deal with disturbing content'. A transcript can be downloaded below.

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How do teens come across graphic content?

Disturbing image and video content can pop up across different types of media. While you might instinctively want to shield your teen from it, chances are they might unexpectedly see something anyway while just scrolling through their social feed or because a friend shares something with them. But being aware of what your teen might be exposed to can help you to take steps to support them.

Here are some ways your teen might see graphic content:

  • When the news covers violence or conflict, some sources may release graphic videos or images.

  • Some TV shows and movies may include footage of stressful or triggering events.

  • Most social media platforms have safety policies against posting disturbing content, but images and videos of distressing situations can sometimes go viral before they’re taken down.

Why do teens need support when dealing with graphic content?

Your teen might feel that being exposed to disturbing content is unavoidable, especially when it crosses over with the platforms they use for entertainment. If it’s something that a lot of their friends are talking about, they might feel like they’re missing out if they don’t keep up with the content.

But your teen’s mental health and wellbeing may be impacted if they consume disturbing content. Graphic imagery can make them feel:

  • worried about others

  • anxious, stressed or depressed

  • angry about the state of the world

  • afraid of certain situations

  • hopeless or sad

  • shocked or confused

  • physically sick

  • unable to focus or to sleep.

There are a bunch of reasons why heavy or sensitive content can affect someone in these ways. It might remind them of a past traumatic experience, or change their view of the world, or challenge their personal values. 

You can share this article on how to cope if you see disturbing videos and other sensitive content with your teen. The info in the article can help them better understand their own reaction and learn some practical ways to manage it.

How to support your teen when they’re affected by graphic content

Stay up to date with the media and pop culture

Of course, it can be hard to find the time to read every article or to watch every video, but it can be helpful to have a general idea of what’s circulating in the media and what young people are talking about. 

Have a chat with your teen about what websites they visit or social media accounts they follow. You don’t have to mirror their internet browsing habits or make them feel like you’re spying on them. It’s just about having a clear idea of what media they’re consuming. That way, you can keep up to date by occasionally scanning your teen’s preferred sources of content as well as traditional news sources. If you’re able to spot a disturbing image or video early on, you may be able to intervene before your teen sees it.

Learn about the issues explored in the sensitive content

Whether it’s something in the news cycle or a popular new TV show that your teen’s watching, a good next step is to read up on the main themes or issues explored in that content. 

If you show your teen that you’re comfortable with and knowledgeable about the issues, they are more likely to talk to you about it when they’re thinking about watching something or if they’re already feeling impacted by the content.

Not a topic your teen’s likely to bring up with you? Try weaving it into a conversation. You could ask questions such as:

  •  ‘I read about [a topic/TV show/news article] recently. Have you heard about it?’

  •  ‘There’s a lot of social posts about [topic] lately. Do you feel bothered by that content?’ 

A good tip for having great conversations with your teen is to check in with them daily about the little things that are going on in their life. This can make it easier for them to talk with you about more difficult topics whenever they come up.

Help your teen figure out if the content is right for them

When you’re informed about the subject, you can also help your teen work out if the content is something they should be consuming. 

You might decide that it’s simply inappropriate for their age. Or you might talk to them about whether or not it’s suitable for them, based on their personality. 

Media outlets tend to have their own guidelines on what is age-appropriate, but topics often listed as not being appropriate for all ages include:

  • violent or graphic content

  • dangerous, harmful or illegal activities

  • nudity and sexual content

  • swearing and bad language

  • hateful content.

The Australian Classification Ratings what is considered appropriate content for young people, while YouTube lists the types of content they consider inappropriate for anyone under 18. It might be worthwhile to read through these guidelines with your teen, so that they understand where you’re coming from.

Over time, your teen’s decision-making skills will develop and they’ll start to make important decisions like this on their own. You could use this opportunity to practise some of these decision-making strategies so that your teen feels more confident in future about figuring out what content is right for them.

Remind them they don't have to consume graphic content, even if their friends are

Even if you’ve talked about a piece of content not being right for your teen, they might still feel they’re missing out if they don’t watch it, or they may feel peer pressured to watch the content. Remind them that it’s perfectly fine and normal to not keep up with what everyone else is doing. 

You could instead help them to come up with some strategies for sticking to their boundaries. This might include brainstorming ways they can say no to their peers, suggesting that they mute or unfollow certain accounts on social media, and encouraging them to spend more time on activities that don’t require screens.

Depending on your teen’s age, it might be helpful to explore the parental control options available on the devices they use. Parental controls are settings or software tools that can help you to manage your teen’s activity online, including filtering out inappropriate content. 

You can find out more about how parental controls work on mobile phones, laptops, TVs, gaming consoles and streaming services on the eSafety Commissioner website.

Talk to them about the reality of the internet

It’s important for your teen to be aware that not everything on the internet is as it seems, particularly when the content comes from an unreliable source online. For example, it could be taken out of context, or the visuals could be edited (or even generated by Artificial Intelligence tools). 

Here are some questions you can ask yourselves about whether a piece of content is real or fake:

  • Is there enough evidence in the story to support the overall message?

  • Is the image quality poor, and does it seem to be cropped or pixilated?

  • Does the video glitch at certain points or shift in quality throughout?

You can head to the eSafety Commissioner website for more information on how to deal with misleading images and videos on the internet.

One particular skill that can help when confronted with disturbing content is increased media literacy. This is the ability to make better judgements about the messages we’re presented with. Thinking critically about the media isn’t something that comes naturally for everyone. Like a lot of skills, it takes time and practice to become confident. Check out these strategies if you and your teen want to improve your media literacy.

Look at the sensitive content together

If you and your teen decide that the content wouldn’t be too harmful, it can be a good idea to look at it together. That way, you can talk through anything distressing, or that makes either of you feel uncomfortable, as it comes up. 

You can also pause viewing the content if it gets too much to deal with and take some time to de-stress with a relaxation technique. Get back to the sensitive content when you feel ready again, or you might decide it’s not worth finishing.

Even if your teen has already seen the content, they might find they have a better understanding of the issues and of their own reaction if they watch it again with you.

Encourage your teen to practise self-care

It’s common not to feel good after consuming graphic content, but your teen can feel more relaxed if they take some time to practise self-care. This can also serve as a good distraction and help to take their mind off the disturbing content. 

Self-care can be any activity that makes your teen feel happy and relaxed. Some ideas include practising their hobbies, eating their favourite food, listening to music, doing some exercise, or journalling. You could even do something together, to show your teen that self-care is a family priority.

Make sure they know they can talk to others 

If your teen feels particularly troubled by what they have seen, or if they need some help with processing their feelings about it, let them know that they can talk about it with other people they know and trust, and not just with you. They may feel comfortable talking about it with other family members or with friends. 

Alternatively, they may prefer a professional support option, such as a counsellor (through Kids Helpline), a peer worker via ReachOut PeerChat (if they’re over 18), or another type of mental health professional.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself

After looking at or talking about disturbing and graphic content with your teen, it’s totally normal for you to feel negatively impacted, too. If you’re having a tough time processing it all, try following some of the same advice you’d give your teen, such as setting boundaries and taking time for self-care

You could also chat about it with someone you trust, such as a good friend or family member, or head over to our Parents Coaching service for one-on-one sessions that are designed to give you clarity and confidence.

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