Sometimes we parents feel so helpless when our children come to us hurting as much as us when they see something awful happening in the world. In her email letter to our community, my friend, colleague and fellow parent Michelle Lipkin wrote, when her 19-year-old daughter asked her to explain what’s going on, “I tried my best, but I know my response was inadequate. At times like these, I always feel inadequate. How do you possibly explain the dehumanizing hate that causes events like this to unfold? As someone who has lost a loved one to terrorism [her father to the 1988 aircraft bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland], I know all too well the impact one act of hate can have on one life. But this? The magnitude of this?
“My daughter says, ‘But I don’t understand, Mom, how does it end?’ And the only truth I have is ‘I don’t know. And then I hug her as tight as I can.” They were talking about what the UN called the “humanitarian situation in Gaza beyond the imagination” that we here on the western side of the Atlantic woke up to this morning. More than 1 million people were told to leave northern Gaza in 24 hours. The southern part of the Gaza Strip already has a million people, and the Strip borders on Israel, the Mediterranean and Egypt, which has “largely sealed” its border, the Wall Street Journal reports, thus the UN’s words “nowhere to go.”
We can only hope that families in Gaza are given more time and the violence against innocents in Gaza and Israel can end. But whether or not the trauma on both sides escalates or eases, images of it are all over social media. As tech reporter Aisha Counts reported in this morning’s Bloomberg Tech newsletter, “efforts by the social media operators to limit violent content over the past week have largely failed. So, many schools and community organizations have been urging parents to take a drastic step: delete their kids’ social media apps.”
That’s certainly up to each family, but it may help to remember that kids also find help, community and comfort in using social media. For many kids, it’s better to have open communication lines at home and in social media, knowing parents and other loved ones have their backs if they run into upsetting news and images as they help kids grow their self-care skills. Some experts call them “refusal skills” (see an example here) – the ability to recognize when something’s upsetting them, walk away from it and get help or support. But for particularly sensitive or vulnerable children, it could well be best to do whatever is possible to ensure they’re not exposed to violent images. As essential as refusal skills are, for some kids, they may not be enough (UNICEF has 8 helpful tips on “How to talk to your children about conflict and war“).
It’s incredibly challenging for parents and educators – not to mention governments and social media platforms – to deal with both the information coming in and the inadequacy of content moderation in a global humanitarian crisis. The Hamas-Israel conflict in the Middle East not only exposes that inadequacy, it exposes the tight relationship between media literacy and mental health in a very social, global, media environment into which anything real or fake from horrific to helpful can be posted by anyone with any sort of intention.
Another friend and colleague, psychiatrist Richard Graham in London, posted a particularly relevant message from psychology professor and mutual friend Sonia Livingstone: “For young people facing mental health challenges today, gaining media literacy to navigate the digital world could not be more crucial – both to avoid or manage online risks and to find trustworthy information and needed support.”
So skills, literacy and love – all are profoundly needed. As we witness this heartbreaking humanitarian crisis, there are things we can do, including donating to the UN Relief and Works Agency. But what we can do for our children, maybe above all and even in our helplessness, is try our best to be a steady presence for them, especially in a time like this. If we can. No pressure – really. And sometimes our kids are a steady presence for us. 🙏 I know mine are for me.