Social Media and School Violence: Helping Kids Cope After Parkland

by: Laurie Mega
How do you help kids cope with the deluge of social media posts on the attack at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School? We asked a social media expert for advice.
Social Media and School Shootings

It's been more than a week since 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, killing 17 people and injuring 14 others. 

"My concern is this: Are kids equipped to deal with this content?" -- Dr. Vincent Raynauld, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Emerson College

While it's a familiar scenario in recent years, one thing stands out from the many other attacks, from Columbine to Sandy Hook: the integral role social media has played throughout the unfolding events. From the live updates during the shooting to the reactions and calls for change in the days following, social media was there throughout.

And it's not surprising.

Where millennials don't remember a time before the internet, members of Generation Z, who range in age from 2 to 19, don't remember a time without social media. In fact, it's where they consume most of their information.

"These kids are cable cutters," say Dr. Vincent Raynauld, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Emerson College. He explains that members of Gen Z are less likely to have cable television at home and get a lot of their information from social media sites.

Dr. Raynauld is an expert in social media. He has published extensively on the effects of social media on society, and social and political movements, both in the United States and in his native Canada. He says it's interesting to see how social media has been used throughout this ordeal, but also cautions that it could come at a cost for our kids.

"My concern is this: Are kids equipped to deal with this content?" 

The answer, in general, is no.

So how do you help your child deal with the images and information they are receiving about not only the Parkland shooting, but about all tragedies that play out on social media? How do you guide them to use their social feeds in a positive way?

Here are some tips:

Don't Expect That Limiting Screen Time Will Help

The entire attack unfolded on social media. Students took video and snapped photos. Others took to their feeds to reassure loved ones they were safe. Student Cameron Kasky simply posted "I'm safe," to his Facebook feed two hours after the shooting.

In the days after, students began to reflect on their experience via their social accounts. Kasky wrote "So angry that I'm not scared or nervous anymore...I'm just angry."

It all happened in real time.

Then came the posts and memes about mental health, gun control and conspiracy. It's a lot for a kid to take in.

While it's important to keep tabs on your kids' social media use. It's also important to understand that graphic images, accounts of the attack and the incendiary reactions like those we are seeing come out of Parkland will most likely reach them somehow. 

What's important is how we address the issue with our children and how we arm them with the right tools to deal with the topic as a whole.

Make Time to Talk and Keep Your Explanations Age-Appropriate

The National Association of School Psychologists says that parents need to make the time to have meaningful conversations with their kids about the events, and to reassure them that they are safe. Look for signs that your child wants to talk, like hanging around you more than usual, and take the initiative to open up a conversation. 

The NASP also gives tips on the kinds of conversations you should be having with your children, depending on their age.

Make Sure They Know How Social Media Works

Dr. Raynauld recommends taking the time to help kids, especially teens, understand that their social media feeds are often echo chambers. Explain to them that the kinds of content they view and the people they follow influences the kinds of information that platforms like Facebook and Twitter serve up in their feeds. 

"It's important for kids to understand that things on social media are out of context," says Dr. Raynauld. He gives the example of the town hall that took place on February 21, with Senator Marco Rubio. Both pro- and anti-gun activitists claimed victory simply by pulling sound bites out of the same debate.

Dr. Raynauld warns that the omnipresent nature of content on social media, if not fully understood, can push kids to take drastic measures to protect themselves if they don't feel safe.

Make Sure Your Kids Are Media Literate

That said, help your child understand the importance of having all the information. This is especially important in the wake of something like the Parkland shooting, where social and political debates can get ugly.

Point them to other sources outside of their own social media feeds, says Dr. Raynauld. "The beauty of social media is that you can get every bit of information to fully understand what’s happening."

Help Them Take Action in a Constructive Way

One of the remarkable reactions to the Parkland shooting is the student-led movements for gun control and safety in schools. The Never Again movement, started by Stoneman high school students has spread like wildfire across the country. The March for Our Lives, scheduled for March 24 in Washington, DC, now has corresponding marches in other cities, including Boston, New York and Chicago.

"What strikes me about this movement is that it’s a very strong emotional response to what we’re seeing," says Dr. Raynauld. "It’s not #guncontrol, it’s not #rememberingthevictims. It’s a very emotional response."

He cautions that the emotional response can draw kids in, but that they should understand exactly what it is they are advocating. "It’s important to educate kids on the underlying issues of this movement. What are the pros and cons of gun control, etc? It will have an impact on their political engagement."

Helping children deal with fears and anxieties can be a difficult and overwhelming task. For more expert tips, read How to Help Your Child Deal With Fears About School Violence.