How to Talk to Teens About Current Events

In this week's 'Teen Talk' column, a young adult shares how parents talk to teens about current events, keeping in mind that many teens might use social media differently than their parents.

how to talk to teens about current events
Photo: Illustration by Emma Darvick

While the new year provides an opportunity to look back on a particularly difficult time for many and offers hope for what's ahead, it's clear we're still very much living in "unprecedented times"—a phrase many have long grown tired of. With the continued challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent insurrection at the United States Capitol, 2021 is off to a newsworthy start with massive stories breaking on a near-daily basis, forcing us to look at our institutions and communities with increased scrutiny.

With tensions high in the US and worldwide, it's likely peripheral stress is seeping into your home. Headlines can bring a rush of emotions into your household that you may not expect or know how to confidently navigate. This can make talking about current events with your teen all the more difficult—you want to be someone they can rely on in a world that's changing so fast while feeling the pressure of saying the right thing about difficult topics. Before having a discussion with your teen about things you see in the news, it's important to keep in mind the different ways younger generations get information, and how it can result in their developing a worldview entirely different from your own.

Come Prepared to Learn From Each Other

The best way to bridge the divide between teens and parents reading different news sources is to come to the conversation prepared to learn rather than teach. Expressions of mutual respect are crucial when discussing important topics, and letting your teen feel heard when they articulate their views will make them far more receptive to listening to your thoughts. It's important to remember that your teen has looked to you as an authority all their life, meaning actions like quickly rebuking their opinions or criticizing their news sources can come across as condescending.

Rather than try to outsmart your teen, give them the tools to have an intelligent dialogue about important issues regardless of who they're talking with. You may consider sharing articles with one another to have common information to relate back to. By creating an open dialogue in this way, you establish a forum in which your teen can rely on you to help make sense of an often scary and confusing world.

From an expert: "As parents, our inclination is to deeply want them to feel okay, so we'll say things like 'you're okay,' or 'it'll be fine' or 'these things happen' without leaning into the deeper feelings your teen may be experiencing," says Alex Boeving Allen, Ph.D., clinical child psychologist, Brightline clinician, and mom of two. She notes that this often comes out of parental anxiety over not knowing what to say, but it can come off dismissive and invalidating.

"You can share your own views, but not in a combative way or in arguing their point down," Dr. Allen says, echoing the suggestion to share how you each came to your viewpoints with factual information or articles from trusted sources.

Talk About the Role of Social Media

While your teen may have made their first social media accounts to interact with friends online, sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have become places where both firsthand and reported news pieces are spread with lightning speed. Teens rely on social media now more than ever to stay informed, allowing them to scroll entertainment and news content simultaneously. Entertainment-news media is popular particularly among teens, who are far more likely to learn about current events from YouTube or TikTok than a traditional media outlet. Because of the personalized nature of social newsfeeds, it can be easy to tailor your feed to something removed from reality without even realizing.

Similarly, bias in coverage by larger publications is a popular topic online with articles often reposted in a context exposing an opinionated viewpoint. This may lead your teen to be wary of certain publications, or distrustful of large-scale news media altogether. However, it also provides them with a framework from which greater media literacy can grow. Talking with your teen about publication bias and what the inclusion or emphasis of certain details in news coverage may mean is a good entry point for a larger conversation about their news media consumption. By ensuring their ability to consider the context and viewpoint presented by an article, you help them begin good habits that will improve their information gathering skills long term.

A diplomatic way to approach this is creating an open exchange of information: asking your teen about their news sources and introducing them to ones you find trustworthy. This provides them an opportunity to organically consider new perspectives and think critically about where they get information while giving you a better sense of what they're exposed to online.

From an expert: "Check in with your kids—saying hey, this thing happened, how are you feeling about it, what are you seeing, what have you seen on social media, what are your friends saying?" suggests Dr. Allen. "If they see something on social media, talk about cross-checking that with a trusted news source and not just trusting what they see at face value in a post."

Understand Your Teens Might Consume News Differently Than You

With Common Sense Media reporting in 2019 that teens spend an average of 7 hours a day on their phones, it's daunting to consider how information absorbed while scrolling can sculpt their worldview. While getting news from social media can lead to ideological echo chambers, it is also a powerful tool for firsthand journalism. Time and time again, instances of police brutality are documented with cellphone video or Facebook Live, amplifying moments of daily injustice and sparking large scale calls for change.

Because news on social media often manifests through the sharing of purported personal experiences in viral posts, teens are likely to feel passionate about topics like climate change and racial justice after hearing about peoples' first-hand experiences. There's a lesser degree of removal from stories and events, and as a result, expressing doubt in their news sources may come across as more hostile than you intend.

As protests swept the nation this past summer, I was concerned my parents weren't interested in issues of racial equality and didn't seem to understand why I was so upset. After multiple conversations, it became clear they hadn't seen many of the videos of violent police encounters with protesters that I was watching daily. Our conversations felt disconnected because our perceptions of the protests were completely different, sculpted by our respective news sources. Only after this discrepancy was discovered and acknowledged were we able to begin having more productive conversations about the issues at hand, focusing on what we had read and trying to fill the gaps in our perspectives rather than fighting over the differences.

From an expert: The way teens use social media can be overwhelming, especially where viral footage shows unfiltered moments of crisis. "There can be a tipping point when they're exposed to a lot of tough stuff on social media when it starts to feel overwhelming," Dr. Allen says. "It can even feel retraumatizing as they're seeing the same things happen over and over again."

Dr. Allen suggests checking in with your teen to help them find balance. "You don't want to create a void by saying you just can't be on social media," she notes. But you can remind them (and yourself) to take physical breaks away from their phones, social media, and the news.

Brandt Matthews is a 23-year-old from Rye, New York. He is a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins University and majored in writing and film, with a particular interest in the intersection of storytelling and education. He's excited to continue exploring the ways in which media can simultaneously entertain and inform.

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