Media Consumption, Protests, and Teen Mental Health

Media coverage of the nationwide protests occurring in response to the tragic death of George Floyd has been nearly constant since Memorial Day. Every second a new video appears: from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, demonstrators are out in the streets, making their voices heard.

And your adolescent is watching it all unfold, in real time, on TV and on their phones.

Many parents are asking themselves this question:

Should I let my teenage consume all this content – especially when some of it is graphic and violent?

It’s an important question that deserves an answer – although a definitive answer may be elusive.

Graphic Content and Teen Mental health

On the one hand, it’s important for adolescents to be passionate about causes they believe in, and understand the issues involved. When teens can put their energy into something they care about, they gain a sense of agency.

On the other hand, certain images in the media may distress adolescents with mental health issues such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression – and the impact can be severe.

Too much media might exacerbate their symptoms to a dangerous degree. Teens with a history of self-injury, suicide attempts, or other risky behavior may be at increased risk. Parents of teens with these preexisting mental health issues should keep a close eye on what their teen is consuming – and limit the consumption if it causes distress.

Victims of assault or other forms of violence may be triggered by the violence they see online or on TV.

“Vicarious trauma through screens is real, especially for marginalized communities who may have experienced similar actions first-hand,” Dr. Jenny Radesky told CNN Health last week. Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, researches family digital media use.

She says the stress of watching traumatic events through television and smartphones can “linger within our bodies and minds.”

Keep Your Teen Safe

Remember this: as the parent, you’re allowed to set limits and boundaries to protect your children. Their physical and emotional safety should be your top priority. If you want to institute a rule to keep your adolescent safe, you have the authority. If their media consumption causes panic attacks, triggers incidents of self-harm, leads to suicidal thoughts, or results in any type of behavior poses a danger to themselves or others, don’t think twice about it: limit their access to media, and set firm boundaries around the type and amount of media they can consume as these unprecedented events unfold.

Dr. Steve Buttlaire, Regional Director of Behavioral Health and Addiction Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, says even adolescents who don’t struggle with mental health issues should have limits on media consumption during this time.

“Make sure they’re not glued to the TV set watching media all day,” he advises.

Additionally, parents should do their best to ensure that the news their teen is consuming is accurate.

Communicate With Your Teen

At the same time, parents should talk to their teens about what’s going on. How does your adolescent feel about what they’re seeing and hearing – on the news or in person?

Take the time to check in with them about their emotions surrounding all these recent events. Make sure to validate anything they’re feeling. And of course, if you see that they’re in crisis, or their mental health symptoms are worsening, seek professional support.