Dealing with upsetting content online


We will all inevitably come across things online that upset, confuse or frighten us, and that includes our teens.

Rather than simply focusing on preventing this from happening, try to think about how you would respond when this happens, not if. Reflecting on how you feel about things in advance – from politics to pornography – helps to prepare you to support your teen with whatever they come across.

There are ways to approach this: from the initial response, to spotting warning signs or dealing with the fallout.

What did your teen see?

Context is key. Content can be upsetting for an enormous number of reasons. It could be extreme imagery or video footage, or behaviour that is personally offensive.

It might depend on the relationship between people involved, how it was seen or the motivation behind it. Did your teen seek it out or find it by accident? If someone shared it with them, did they mean to upset or offend?

What feels distressing to one person may not feel that way to another – so be careful not to dismiss your teen's feelings. Shutting down a conversation may lead them to seek answers from more unreliable sources, so listen to and validate how they feel. No matter if it seems trivial to you: if it has upset them, then it's upsetting.

Spotting the signs

You may have received a notification that they have reported content or blocked someone – which means that they chose to report it to you too. But you can't assume that your teen will come to you when they're upset by something.

There can be many reasons why they may not initially discuss it with you. They may be confused by what they've seen or worry it will land them (or someone else) in trouble. They may know that they've crossed a boundary and worry about being banned from going somewhere online or connecting with a person or group.

They may turn to a friend in the first instance – though that person might not have the answers either.

Here are some things to look out for:

  • your teen seeming withdrawn,
  • being less sociable,
  • or becoming more secretive about who they speak to and what they do online.

Create time and space for them to raise an issue. Simple, low-pressure moments to talk, such as on a car journey or a walk, could encourage them to open up.

How to react

Whatever they've seen – and however they ended up seeing it – stay calm. Give them time and space to explain what has happened. It's never easy, but try to respond without judgement and reassure them that you'll do your best to deal with the situation together.

Before asking to view the content yourself, ask yourself whether you need to – for your own benefit, as well as your teen's.

Reliving the experience could be distressing for them, and you may underestimate its impact on your own wellbeing.

Moving forwards positively

Decide how to move forwards together. If they have seen something really unpleasant, they will need time to process that.

They may need some space or protection from a particular account or contact.

Remind them that they have the power to unfollow, block or report other accounts, and encourage them to do so. The account in question won't be notified. They could also report the content if they do not want to impact the account itself. Read more advice on supporting your teen when online relationships break down – and find out more about Instagram's parental supervision tools.

Listen to their needs and make sure that they feel supported while resetting any boundaries that may have been crossed.

Help and support

More formal action might be required if the content is extreme or something criminal has occurred.

This can feel daunting, but should be seen as a positive action. Encourage your teen by telling them that they could be protecting others from being exposed to similar material in the future.

Depending on the content or context, you may need support too – and there are sites and organisations that can help.

Find more support services on the Parent Zone website.

Related topics

Would you like to choose another country or region to see content specific to your location?