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Kids are watching war on social media: Here’s what parents should know (and do)

Social platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok bring war closer to home for everyone, including young kids.
/ Source: TODAY

"Mom, did Ukraine do anything to Russia to make them do this?" Lane, 10, asked his mother, Jennifer Cannon, earlier this week on their way to school.

The North Carolina fourth-grader had seen TikTok videos of NICU babies in Ukraine swaddled in blankets in a basement, and rubble of what was once an apartment building crumbling while air raid sirens sounded.

Related: How to talk to kids about war

As Russia invades Ukraine, many people, including children, are watching on social media. Experts say parents can, and should, help their kids make sense of the sometimes graphic, violent and upsetting images they may be seeing.

Cannon, 40, a social worker and mom of two, told TODAY Parents she did her best to explain the situation unfolding between Russia and Ukraine.

"I said no, they didn’t (do anything to Russia), but I also tried to explain to him that Putin may or may not really think that they have, in his mind, and that Russia doesn’t work like our country," Cannon told TODAY Parents.

Cannon shared that her son still had questions.

"Lane seemed to be confused about how Russian people could be OK with this, so I was trying to help him understand that not all countries work the same way we do," she said. "That media is controlled by the government and (people in Russia) might not know the truth. Also fear of the government, and not being able to protest, which is very different from our country."

Related: 12 photos that show what’s going on in Ukraine

"War is no longer abstract or far away for our children," Cannon said. “I do my best to explain to my kids that if you think things like this only happen in other parts of the world and can never happen here, that is not true."

For Jessica Meyer's daughters, ages 7 and 12, the news hits closer to home because their dad is in the U.S. Army.

"Talking to my girls about what is happening is very hard, because they aren't just average American children, they are Army children," Meyer told TODAY Parents, noting that their dad is an active military service member. "They talk amongst each other more, because they hear their parents talking about it more. They hear our community talk about it."

Meyer said she is very upfront about what is happening, especially for her older daughter, who uses social media.

"Otherwise they will hear it somewhere else in a way that may impact them worse," she explained. "What’s real for them is their dad leaving. They want to know why he is leaving and what he is going to do when he is over there."

Here's what experts say parents should do:

1. Scroll with your kids

Laura Linn Knight, a parenting educator and author of the upcoming book, "Break Free from Reactive Parenting," told TODAY that if parents allow their children to use social media it's important to know what accounts they follow and what information they are accessing.

"I don’t think we need to shield kids from the current events of our time," Knight said. "These are important conversations to be having, but it’s so important for parents to fact check and find reliable information.

She also recommends sitting down with kids and scrolling their social media feeds together.

"Kids are wanting autonomy with their own screens, and parents are feeling the need to supervise and to have limits, but it causes this daily power struggle in so many homes,” she said.

2. Ask 'curiosity questions'

Knight said that asking "curiosity questions" is a good way to begin conversations.

"In this situation, there’s a lot going on in the world today," she said. "Keep it broad at first, like 'What are you hearing at school?' (or) 'What images do you see on social media?'"

Related: Here's what's really happening on social media

Knight said she uses this tactic with her own children.

"For my kids, I like to check in and say, 'When you saw that, how did that make you feel? Are you having any concerns? What feelings are coming up for you?' So letting the child lead in that way," Knight explained.

3. Keep the conversation going

The Arizona-based parenting educator emphasized the importance of keeping the conversation going on topics like these.

"A lot of times, parents can be like OK, we talked about it," Knight told TODAY. "Older children want to be on social media, see these images, be brave, (and) have access to these things, so they may not be telling you everything they are feeling. It’s so important to loop back in."

4. 'Show me what's scary'

Neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez offered another action-based approach for parents.

"Ask your child to show you images or videos that he or she deems scary online or on social media," Hafeez told TODAY. "Ask them what elements they find scary.  If the child perceives these videos or photos as scary, ask why they are drawn to them in the first place."

Hafeez shared that kids may not know they can "hide" material on social media that they find offensive or upsetting.

"As their parent, show them how this can be done so they can have a less triggering social media experience," the New York City-based doctor shared.

Related: Ukrainian parents are taking heartbreaking measures to try to protect their children

5. Teach about misinformation

Hafeez said parents should also inform children about misinformation, which is certainly everywhere in war.

"Explain to your child the meaning of 'gossip' and how people or entities benefit from it," she said. "Cite examples that might occur in your child’s school regarding how 'fake news' might be spread about a student, a sports team or a teacher."

Hafeez said depending on the age of the child, parents can explain the meaning of “clickbait” and how to recognize it.

Parents should also ask their kids where they typically go for information.

"Explain to them that some websites are purposely satirical, and why that satire exists," Hafeez said, adding that "Project Look Sharp," a non-profit dedicated to media literacy, has devised questions to help older kids evaluate online information.

Both Knight and Hafeez emphasized that handling social media content and children is not a "one size fits all" approach.

6. You're the expert on your child, your values

"As the parent, you have to take into account what you are comfortable having them see at a particular age that jibes with your core values," Hafeez said. "Parents need to think about what could trigger their child emotionally."

Added Knight, "It gives parents an opportunity to loop back in with their own family values. When something big is happening in the world, how can we create meaningful change? What can we do in our own family to help?"