Last week marked the terrible anniversary of one year after Russia’s first formal act of war on Ukraine.
Unlike any other war, this one has been on our TV, social media and digital news sites every day for just over 365 days. TV news often gives warnings or blurs out the worst of footage but there are many more sites where nothing is filtered and scenes are streamed in all their horror.
It’s a lot easier to manage what our younger children see but our older children, teens and young adults are being visually transported into places where violent scenes of death, destruction and misery are the norm.
Eighteen-year-old Lenny wrote an article on Safe on Social blog called, “The War Before Our Eyes: Global Conflict in the Digital Age” and I thought his point of view as a teenager was fascinating.
Lenny writes, “We have never had the ability to watch wars unfold hour by hour, to see what the individuals, who constitute the cogs of conflict, get up to. Until now, that is.” Combat is no longer confined to video games but there are countless dedicated sites that have the sole purpose of streaming real-life, unfiltered scenes from bitter and bloody wars including Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Kashmir as well as Ukraine.
We expect teenagers to be desensitised to violence but even Lenny feels like these video streams should be “consigned to the realm of dark web content and sordid thumb drives traded between military officials”. After watching a few of these videos, Lenny asks the all-important question, “What does it mean for our society that such violence is now so readily viewable?
If there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of these violent scenes, it is that the unfiltered footage does not glorify war but presents it in all its gory reality. Unlike video games, the hero doesn’t get up after being shot, to battle another skirmish. Real people die and are and are injured terribly. There is no round two for many of them. Those watching this footage will be in no doubt of the horror of war.
However, anxiety and depression rates among our teenagers have never been higher and I can imagine that dwelling on the devastating impact of war and watching real people being hurt, will not help those statistics.
Will seeing war and violence in real time desensitise our teens to violence and decrease their ability to empathise with others? Maybe but it is more likely to have a negative impact on their own mental health than leading them to become violent themselves.
What can you do as parents and caregivers of teenagers?
1. Limit their exposure.
This is much easier to do when your children are younger so start early. You still have more power than you may realise as a parent of a teenager when it comes to social media access so use it wisely. There are lots of tips on the internet (ironically) to help you navigate this with your teens collaboratively and as part of a healthy lifestyle rather than a heavy-handed approach that does not work.
2. Talk, talk, talk with your teen.
Just like tip #1, talking with your teen and keeping the communication lines open will solve almost any problem that might arise. Use opportunities when footage comes up on TV to ask them questions and for their opinion. They will be chuffed that you are seeking their opinion and will probably have one. What do they think about the war in Ukraine? Do they understand the history of how it happened? What do they think possible solutions are? How do they feel when they see footage of the war? Did they know that Volodymyr Zelenskyy used to be a comedian?
3. Listen, listen, listen to your teen.
This really belongs in #2 but we often forget that talking with our teens should be listening to them, not talking to or at them. Listen carefully to their worries and concerns and how they feel about what they are seeing. Don’t shut down their emotions but reassure them that it is okay to be worried and upset by what is going on. Ask them what they are reading online and be careful not to react strongly or angrily but to listen to what they are saying. Don’t say things like, “You shouldn’t be following that rubbish” rather, ask them for their ideas on how to manage what they are seeing. Remind them that they are in control of what they see on social media and maybe it’s time to unfollow some accounts and find new ones that will make them laugh or have a more positive impact.
4. Focus on hope and resilience.
We have a lot to learn from Ukraine’s people. Their resourcefulness and courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds have been inspiring for all of us. They haven’t given up and the humble tractor has become a symbol (and a very real tool) for their resistance. Wars are no laughing matter but part of Ukraine’s successful response has been to use memes (from Pokemon to Star Wars), caricatures, parodies and even TV shows against Russia’s propaganda. What amazing people!
In conclusion, we cannot shield our children or teens from the realities of the world, but we can provide them with the tools they need to process the information they are exposed to. By limiting their exposure to violent content, having open and honest conversations, encouraging empathy and focusing on hope, we can help them navigate these difficult times and build a more compassionate future.
Mike Curtis, Principal