Social Media and Grieving Children: Helpful or Harmful?

When a child has experienced the death of a family member or close friend, can social media be a good thing? Or is it more likely to cause distress and harm?

Social media is a fact of student life today. The vast majority of teens spend time on social media sites, and many younger students do as well.

“The discussion is not whether grieving students should be using social media, or whether it is appropriate,” explains David Schonfeld, M.D., director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. “Rather, it is how best to adapt to its use in this context, and in what ways it can be used optimally.”

Comfortable Space, Unique Opportunities

Adults are sometimes uncomfortable with the use of social media, especially when dealing with sensitive topics. For most children and adolescents, however, social media is a familiar and comfortable way to communicate. Formats such as Facebook, Twitter, texting, Instagram, instant messaging and more offer unique and even powerful ways children can gain support and check in with peers. In fact, many children dealing with bereavement choose these avenues as their preferred methods of communication.

Why?

  • It’s familiar. Young people communicate in these ways about all kinds of life events, including some that are quite serious.
  • It offers control. Grieving students can decide when to read and respond to a text, for example. They can monitor their reactions and only need to share what they choose to. They can opt to be more open and vulnerable with close friends, and a bit more distant with others. They can respond when they feel composed and are ready to do so.
  • Others may share more openly. The sense of privacy that users often feel with social media can allow classmates to share personal and sensitive responses they might not share as openly in person.

Challenges and Cautions

It also is important for grieving children to have face-to-face time with supportive peers and adults. Social media interactions will be most helpful when they are balanced with real-world contacts. Relying only on social media can increase the sense of social isolation grieving children may feel.

People may say hurtful or inappropriate things through social media. This might include peers or strangers who are able to see a post related to a grieving student’s loss. Grieving students also may come across disturbing news items online about their own loss or other deaths.

Education professionals are among the more important face-to-face contacts for grieving students. When talking with students, consider checking in about the kind of support they’re getting (or not getting) in social media. Teachers might suggest parents of grieving students consider monitoring their children’s social media feeds, or ask their children about the social media content on their sites.

Learn more about the benefits and pitfalls of social media and ways to offer support to students at the website of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students (www.grievingstudents.org). AFSA is a member of the coalition.

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students was convened by the New York Life Foundation, a pioneering advocate for the cause of childhood bereavement, and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, which is led by pediatrician and childhood bereavement expert David J. Schonfeld, M.D. The coalition has worked with Scholastic Inc., a longstanding supporter of teachers and kids, to create grievingstudents.org, a groundbreaking, practitioner-oriented website designed to provide educators with the information, insights and practical advice they need to better understand and meet the needs of the millions of grieving kids in America’s classrooms.

This article was featured in the Volume 88, Winter/Spring 2017 issue of AFSA’s newsletter, The Leader. To read the newsletter in its entirety visit: http://bit.ly/2nJdsIN