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Our Kids Are Watching: Racial Violence in the News & Viral Trauma

How to protect and prepare your child when tragic events and images are shared online.

boy looking at a phone

As parents, we always want to protect our kids from harm. But in our world of viral videos, autoplay, and nonstop news coverage, we have an extra challenge—staying ahead of what our kids see. We also want to support them if they've already been exposed to disturbing images and videos. For Black parents and caregivers, and folks parenting Black children, tragedies that involve racial violence can be particularly difficult for the mental and emotional well-being of our children (as well as our own).

Violent footage can be especially upsetting for children under 7. It's a good idea for kids this young to avoid graphic images. Meanwhile, older kids and teens may learn about tragic news via their social media feed or at school. Here's what you should know about preparing your child for what they may see and protecting their mental health.

How do images and videos of racial violence affect children?

Viewing posts and videos of tragic events can lead to secondary trauma. That's when we feel emotional stress because we engage empathetically with victims. Research shows that the more you are exposed to violent news events, the more you can feel this trauma. This can raise a person's sense of anxiety, fear, and other symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This is particularly concerning for young people, who may not have context for what they're seeing. They may not understand that they're not destined to be victims solely based on their race or ethnicity.

Do we have to watch these videos to understand the issues or events?

Video footage of harmful incidents can be incredibly useful for exposing injustices and ensuring accountability. But raw footage of hate crimes and police brutality are more widely recorded and shared these days. Even if it's in the name of justice and raising awareness, many Americans, especially Black Americans, are feeling a psychological toll.

If you don't think you or your child can watch the video, that's OK. You may decide to watch a glimpse or short clip of the footage. If you feel like you can't bear to watch the whole thing, or anything at all, you don't have to. Most likely, there will be plenty of news coverage to stay updated, particularly for high-profile events. We don't always have to view videos of the tragedy to understand or to keep our kids informed and vigilant. You can also use books, movies, and TV shows to talk about racism with kids of all ages. These conversations can prepare them for tough news.

What should I do if my child has already seen the footage? What if we decide to watch?

Ideally, you want to have an age-appropriate conversation with your child before they see a disturbing video. It's the best way to ensure they can understand the facts and ask questions. Keep in mind where they're at in their development, which affects their ability to handle upsetting news and process images that might scare them.

While it isn't always possible to know all of the details of an incident, try finding trustworthy sources of information before pressing play. What you learn may change your mind about sharing the content with your kids. Or at least you'll know what to expect. If you do decide to watch, it's best to view together with your child so that you're available to respond to their needs in that moment.

If your child has watched these kinds of videos, help them identify ways to process the tragedy and its aftermath. Is it going to the park or taking a walk? Or finding ways to get involved? Older kids and teens may also need help setting up healthier social media habits and managing their feeds. Help them stick to reliable or positive content to combat the negative. If they feel like they're investing too much time or emotional energy, remind them to pull back and take breaks from screens.

Last, tap into your circle of support. Help your child identify people they trust to have conversations with about racism and violence. This can be family and friends, a spiritual leader, or a professional such as a licensed mental health professional.

Jasmine Hood Miller
Jasmine Hood Miller is the director of community content and engagement. With a background in media and marketing, she joined Common Sense in 2010 and has successfully helped produce dozens of events that share Common Sense's mission and resources with families and educators across the country and raise vital funds to support these efforts. She leads content strategy focused on the unique media and tech concerns of BIPOC families, writing parent advice as well as sharing our impact with our supporters. Jasmine holds a BA in Communications from Temple University, is a former board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), and considers herself an image activist. When she's not trying to find fun ways to keep her three young sons happy and healthy, Jasmine enjoys spending time with family, traveling with her husband, being a plant (and fur) parent, and trying to remember that exercise is a form of self-care.