Since 1979, the New York Life Foundation has focused its support on times of transition for young people–following the loss of a loved one and during the shift from middle to high school. In addition to funding programs in these areas, the Foundation has worked to convene experts to share their perspectives. The coronavirus has presented an opportunity to develop resiliency in children and young adults, and this article is part of a new ongoing series from the New York Life Foundation called ‘Ask the Expert.’

Whenever a community or national tragedy unfolds in the public spotlight, Americans brace themselves for the overwhelming cascade of words and images that will dominate the airwaves until the next crisis takes hold. While many networks and cable outlets may take appropriate steps to avoid showing unsettling and/or, graphic words and images, it can be challenging to avoid the ongoing reporting, social media commentary, and conversation among friends and family that follows. The coronavirus is no different, so how can we remain vigilant and monitor the media “diet” our families will consume in the weeks to come? 

Limit Your intake

Researchers1 have found that contact with frightening events through the media can negatively impact children’s emotional functioning and perception of the world. For those who have recently experienced a loss, family illness, or another crisis, viewing and reading about stories and programs related to the coronavirus may bring back feelings from these earlier events. Given these findings, it is important for adults to limit media consumption while their children are in the house. Children under seven years of age should not watch any programming or news reports. Older children and teens should avoid watching disturbing news or programming after 6:00 p.m. Such programming can overstimulate children and impede restful sleep.

Important considerations for social media

While families attempt to monitor television programming in their homes, social media presents new challenges. Researchers2 have explored the impact of social media on children and teens and found that social media can influence one’s well-being, and possibly have an impact on social circles offline. We also know that young people use social media to support each other during times of loss3. In fact, they may need these digital connections more than ever. Yet, it is still important to monitor when and what young people are reading and watching. Here are several points to consider when your child or teen uses social media:

  • Find out what social media apps or websites your child uses. Monitor their time spent on the apps. Include them in the decision-making of how much time is too much.
  • Talk about how emoticons/emojis are best used, as they cannot be a substitute for face-to-face interactions or written words, but they can enhance and encourage conversations.
  • Discuss the difference between factual communication, opinion, and gossip. You may want to reference theMuseum Guide Newseum Education Guide for families
  • Encourage children and teens to communicate by telephone or by using video apps; while social distancing, it is important to hear from and see friends and family members.
  • Remember that older children and teens are as vulnerable to frightening information as younger children.

Start a conversation

Viewing any programming related to a community or global crisis should be preceded by family discussion of what happened, and adults should monitor to the extent possible what children see and hear on their phones and computers. Here’s how to start a conversation about the coronavirus:

  • Ask children/teens what they’ve heard (from friends, other parents, classmates, and the media) and what questions they have.  
  • Have factual information about the kinds of symptoms caused by the coronavirus, who is most impacted, and methods for prevention and treatment at the ready to answer their questions.
  • Give age-appropriate responses. Children under the age of five will not comprehend the nature of a virus while children around 11 years old can appreciate the mechanisms of illness as well as other factors that may contribute to illness (other health conditions).
  • Describe symptoms of the coronavirus in relation to what children have already experienced (a cold or flu). They will want to know what happens when people get sick from the virus and we must be honest.
  • Acknowledge feelings of loss and concerns about a shrinking social environment. This may be especially acute for older teens who may be experiencing spring ‘milestone’ events like graduation, college applications, and the cancellation of group sports and other experiences.
  • Focus on the helpers, the people in our communities, government leaders, and health care providers who are assisting everyone.

Watch with the family

It is strongly recommended that school-age children/teens of any age should NOT watch any crisis/disaster-related programming alone, but instead should watch with caring adults, family members, and good friends. Here are some tips for watching coronavirus programming with children:

  • First determine if the program will be appropriate for a child (age, personal experience). By watching with a child/teen you will know the exact content of the program as well as the context of the information.
  • Observe children’s reactions (tearfulness, fidgeting, crying, very quiet, or even “silly” remarks or behaviors). These may be signs that a child is experiencing intensified fears or anxieties.
  • Watch for sleeplessness, stomach distress, crying, or worrying about safety and security. 
  • Do not ask, “Are you okay?” or “Are you upset?” Instead point out the behavior you have noticed and ask what he/she is thinking or feeling, “I see you are kind of quiet, tell me what you’re thinking.”
  • While you’ve likely explained social distancing to your children, explain that those in the same household can still be close to one another. Offer comfort and security to a child or teen through physical proximity. 

Share your thoughts

After you and your family consume information about the coronavirus, talk about it and how you and your children are reacting–physically, as well as any emotions and thoughts you are feeling/having. Plan time to talk in a quiet, comfortable, and familiar place. 

  • Don’t let children/teens go to bed without having a chance to talk, even if you think they look “okay.”  
  • Share personal thoughts and feelings. Don’t hesitate to open communication with your own reactions. If you cry, don’t try to hide it, rather acknowledge that this event has affected many people.  
  • However, be confident about safety and security issues. Children take their cues from adults and how they respond to media; they will watch adult behavior and determine if they really are safe. Praise children when they suggest their own hopeful and positive thoughts.
  • Acknowledge children’s/teens’ feelings. Recognize, accept, and respect a child’s feelings. Let them know that others feel the same way. 
  • Provide reassurance regarding safety and security in simple, age-appropriate words. Don’t give false reassurance; be realistic and honest without being an alarmist. 

Commit to self-care

Let children and teens know that there are ways to feel better as we cope with uncomfortable feelings. 

  • Help them identify what provides relief and support. 
  • Encourage them to use those strategies, especially talking to others about their feelings.
  • Read/tell a favorite story before bed, offer a favorite food or drink, play favorite or relaxing music, give/get a hug, talk, and depending on your beliefs, pray or meditate.

Check in

Take the time to check in with yourself and your family on a regular basis.

  • How did your family sleep, were there any dreams, disturbing thoughts, etc.?
  • Take your cues from your children, keeping communication open without forcing the topic of the virus. Be alert for their nonverbal cues.
  • Avoid starting your day by looking at your phone for updates or talking to friends about the next case or the “numbers” of those who are ill or quarantined.
  • Have a peaceful non-news breakfast as everyone gets ready for their day. 

As the world grapples with the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and adjusts to a new day-to-day routine, it is critical to balance our news consumption with our commitment to support loved ones during this challenging time. Now more than ever we must keep abreast of important information that is vital to the health of our families. We must also be vigilant and observe how our children respond to the words and images in the media. We can interpret what they see and hear and reassure them. We can also build on crucial information that will not only keep them healthy but make them feel safe and secure.

Donna A. Gaffney, DNSc, PMHCNS-BC, FAAN is a consultant to the New York Life Foundation and provides expert advice and guidance on appropriate terminology and understanding and communicating with grieving families. She is a psychotherapist, author, and educator and has long addressed a wide range of life-altering experiences in the lives of children and families related to loss, trauma, and stress. She has counseled young people and schools in the aftermath of individual and national tragedies—9/11, Sandy Hook, and Hurricane Katrina. In addition to academic papers, Donna is the author of The Seasons of Grief, Helping Children Grow Through Loss. She taught at Columbia University and holds master’s degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University; Rutgers University, and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. Her post-doctoral work includes the Prudential Fellowship for Children and the News at Columbia Journalism School. Donna also consults for the Resilient Parenting for Bereaved Families Program at Arizona State University.

Comer, J. S., Furr, J. M., Beidas, R. S., Babyar, H. M., & Kendall, P. C. (2008). Media use and children's perceptions of societal threat and personal vulnerability. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology37(3), 622-630.

Bruggeman Helena, Alain Van Hiel, Guido Van Hal, & Stefan Van Dongen. 2019. “Does the use of digital media affect psychological well-being? An empirical test among children aged 9 to 12.” Computers in Human Behavior 101 (December): 104-113.

Wandel, T. L. (2019). Losing a Friend: Social Media's Impact on Child and Adolescent Grief. In Handbook of Research on Children's Consumption of Digital Media (pp. 24-40). IGI Global.

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Lacey Siegel
New York Life Insurance Company
(212) 576-7937

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