Dubai: You’ve checked all the parental controls on your child’s digital device, blocked harmful websites, and set a limited screen time for them. You sit back, relieved, thinking that the only type of content your child has access to, on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, are cute dance trends, gaming reactions, funny skits, and other harmless content.
But did you know that your child might be watching real-life violence on social media?
A new UK-based research shows that a third of 13- to 17-year-old youngsters have seen footage of real-life violence on the social media platform TikTok in the past year.
The study, which consisted of a poll of 7,500 teenagers for UK-based charity the Youth Endowment Fund, found that a quarter had seen similar material on Snapchat, 20 per cent on YouTube and 19 per cent on Instagram.
Source: The second annual Youth Endowment Fund report, 2023
The researchers found that across all social media platforms, the most common type of violent material viewed was footage of fights. Other videos showed threats to beat someone up, and posts showing or encouraging harm to women and girls.
When the children were asked how they had come across the material, most said the platform they were using had suggested it, while some said they had deliberately accessed it.
Gulf News spoke to children below the age of 18 in the UAE, to find out if they had experienced the same on social media. We also asked experts if prolonged exposure to violent videos and images can make children either violent or desensitised to violence. Here’s what we found…
Maxim Raphael, an 11-year-old French student in Dubai, sometimes gets to use his mum’s phone. He uses this time to scroll through funny videos on YouTube shorts, because his device doesn’t have a YouTube app or TikTok.
“I have seen videos of people getting beaten up by thugs, and I usually continue to watch to see if the victims escaped or survived.”
While the videos scare Raphael while watching, he said he usually forgets about them later on.
[The videos] appear as suggestions and include the use of abusive language, fighting, and hitting.
Meanwhile, 10-year-old Pakistani student, Maryam Imran doesn’t watch TikTok videos. She has seen violent content on a gaming app called Roblox. “They appear as suggestions and include the use of abusive language, fighting, and hitting.
“This kind of content appears most of the time on Roblox and I sometimes continue watching. The videos make me feel scared sometimes.”
Imran’s mother, Maimoona Imran, was shocked when she realised the kind of violent content her daughter had access to. She started to diligently monitor the online games her daughter plays. “Some of these include violent activities like hitting or killing other people in the game. Even YouTube videos about these games show violence,” the mum said.
Twelve-year-old Jeffrey Jacob, an Indian student studying in Sharjah, is an avid gamer. Even though his parents have not allowed access to YouTube or TikTok apps on his gadget, he uses the Chrome browser on his iPad to see gaming reviews on YouTube.
When children watch YouTube on Chrome, they don’t need to sign in. The parental controls on your child’s registered account don’t apply till they sign in.
Which means they have access to an endless number of YouTube videos.
“I usually open YouTube on Chrome to see gaming videos and reviews. But, when I scroll, sometimes violent videos come up. I never search for them. For example, a recent video I saw was that of a guy using pepper spray on his friends’ eyes. Another video I remember seeing was a CCTV clip of a girl being hit by her father. She died in the end. I felt uncomfortable and horrified.”
I remember seeing... a CCTV clip of a girl being hit by her father... I felt uncomfortable and horrified.
Mahira Gangwani, a 16-year-old student in Dubai, added: “The kind of violence I have seen on videos that come up on my feed are usually physical fights, physical abuse to animals, and war-related scenes.”
How violent content sneaks into a child’s social media feed
S.P. (name withheld upon request), a 16-year-old high school student, said she doesn’t search for, or interact with those types of social media accounts.
“Sometimes, I get this content, but it’s either from an account I follow, or it shows up on my explore page. In most cases, there might be a warning before you see a post. I usually see the post but I don’t interact with it and just block it.
“Also, if you lie about your age while joining a social media app, you can get all types of content recommended to you and people do it,” she added.
This is in fact is the easiest way for age-restrictive content to sneak into your child’s feed.
In the United Kingdom, one in three children lie about their age to access online content according to a research study commissioned by Ofcom in 2022, the country’s communications regulator.
If you lie about your age while joining a social media app, you can get all types of content recommended to you...
While lying about your age to join a social media app is not illegal, it does violate the terms and conditions of the social media app.
To tackle this issue, in 2022, Instagram took a tougher approach to its age verification policy. Instagram asks users under the age of 18 to upload their ID, take a video selfie, or ask three mutual followers to verify their age. However, this policy is only in the United States and has not been implemented internationally.
When violence becomes inevitable on social media
Zuhaib Haider Mallick, a 14-year-old student in Dubai says that graphic images and videos can come from news sources.
“I have seen a few violent videos from global wars and conflicts, and it has hurt me and affected my mental health, but I feel like it is important to watch them. Watching at least one or two videos on it, I at least know what’s happening in the world.”
... it has hurt me and affected my mental health, but I feel like it is important to watch them.
Mallick said he wants to follow current events on social media, and he is not the only one. According to a 2019 survey by Common Sense Media, a non-profit organisation based in the United States, a leading source for entertainment and technology recommendations for families, more than half of American teenagers use social media to get their daily news.
A survey from Ofcom in 2023 mirrored this finding, except TikTok is now the most used single source of news for teenagers in the UK.
When it comes to explicit violence in the news, people are more likely to interact with negative coverage on social media, which drives up likes and comments and lands the top position on a child’s TikTok or Instagram feed.
According to a 2023 research study published in the international scientific journal – Human Nature Behaviour, negativity drives news consumption, especially videos and images about bloodshed, crime, and graphic violence.
Muhammad Arham Adil, an 11-year-old student in Dubai says such content comes “very rarely” as suggested content. “One of the videos I watched showed why escaping a country is hard. I continued watching it, because it didn’t show extreme violence. It made me sad for the people suffering these hardships.”
Seventeen-year-old Filipina Lara Guachico agreed. “I have seen videos of violence when I scroll on social media. Lately, most have been about violence during war and conflict in some countries. I see two or three such videos in a day.”
Sympathy and sadness are the feelings these videos evoke in her, she added.
Mysha Khan, a 13-year-old student in UAE added: “I don't watch violent videos on social media. It makes me sad and a bit scared. But, I watch shows with violence and action, which I find entertaining, but I’m not fond of real graphic violence."
It makes me sad and a bit scared.
How deeply are adolescents affected by real violence on social media?
Numerous studies available online have shown that adolescents are highly vulnerable to sensitive content on social media because they are undergoing a highly sensitive period of brain development.
According to a study published in the scientific peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications in 2018, such content causes emotion-loaded responses and interactions among children on social media.
Fifteen-year-old Angeline P, a student in Dubai, said: “Two of my friends recently got in trouble for copying moves they had seen in a fight video on YouTube.”
However, not every young adult reacts emotionally to violence on social media. Some don’t even react and have become numb to it.
“I don’t usually come across videos with violence on my feed, and I find it disturbing. But it does come up and I have become desensitised to it,” said Taher H, a 14-year-old middle school student.
“Now, when I see a murder scene, I feel bored instead of traumatised,” he said.
Some older teenagers seem to approach the algorithm slightly more cautiously.
Mohamed Al Zarooni, a 17-year-old Emirati student told Gulf News: “Obviously, I feel that the violent content on social media has a big effect, because we see it regularly. Sometimes it is verbal, as in people shouting at each other, and this is the thing that comes up regularly on my TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter feeds.
...unlike newspapers, people are now covering the smaller incidents of violence, which are usually more graphic, to benefit themselves and gain money through views, monetisation, and ads.
“The repetitiveness of this violence does not have a great effect on me, because I view the videos more as a way of showing us what is happening around the world, especially with physical attacks. However, I do agree that it is wrong in some sense, because, unlike newspapers, people are now covering the smaller incidents of violence, which are usually more graphic, to benefit themselves and gain money through views, monetisation, and ads. Sadly, although parents could restrict what channels their children watch or what newspapers they buy, they cannot control what comes up next when they scroll on TikTok. So we must now look at phones not as devices for entertainment, but as the third parent, and that’s why we should monitor younger children until they can better understand and process what they are seeing.”
Is it desensitising children to violence?
Mental health experts who spoke to Gulf News raised the alarm on the continued exposure to violence in general, and real-life violence in particular, and how it can desensitise children.
“It is said that by the age of seven, a child can differentiate between fantasy and reality. So, for children in the age group of 13 to 17, seeing scenarios of real-life violence could have more of an impact,” Dr Raga Sandhya Gandi, a psychiatrist with Zulekha Hospital, Dubai, told Gulf News.
“Consistent exposure to violence, either real-life or virtual, may give children the impression that aggression is normal and acceptable. It affects their personality and their perspective of the outer world,” she added.
Consistent exposure to violence, either real-life or virtual, may give children the impression that aggression is normal and acceptable.
What makes this exposure to violence more dangerous as well, is the stage of life that children are in, according to Dr Mary John, a clinical psychologist based in Dubai.
There are videos flooding social media exhibiting different forms of subtle or aggressive real-life violence. Seeing a seemingly quiet girl lash out at someone after she is constantly disturbed by a friend or sibling, watching public confrontations between people, or following an influencer who has an aggressive demeanor can be extremely impactful at that age, according to Dr John.
Children in that age category have hormonal changes affecting their body and mind, and a tendency to ‘hero worship’ or support the underdog, or cheer for a ‘Robinhood’, who snatches from the rich and gives to the poor.
“Children in that age category have hormonal changes affecting their body and mind, and a tendency to ‘hero worship’ or support the underdog, or cheer for a ‘Robinhood’, who snatches from the rich and gives to the poor. They tend to look up to such people, whether in their immediate surroundings or on the screen,” she said.
With teenagers also looking to assert their identity, they gravitate towards those who exhibit power, whether social, monetary, or physical. This makes children vulnerable to internalising the idea that violence, in some circumstances, is acceptable or something to look up to.
Does violence beget violence?
Will a child constantly exposed to violence, and desensitised to it, also have a higher tendency to turn violent? According to the experts who spoke with Gulf News, while real-life violence on screen can definitely have a negative effect on children, other factors also play a role in determining whether or not the child would be violent – for example the child’s individual temperament as well as their environment.
The home environment makes a big difference in how children perceive this violence they see on screen.
According to Dr John, this is why parents need to model the right behaviour and make sure that violence, whether through words, actions, or non-verbal behaviour, is not a part of the household dynamics.
“The home environment makes a big difference in how children perceive this violence they see on screen,” Dr John said.
Dr Gandi, on the other hand, advised parents to always monitor their child’s behaviour as well as their social media content, which can expose them to a lot of negative behaviours as well.
If you see your child, who is normally gentle, behave in an aggressive manner, or respond to small triggers with an extreme approach, it is important to speak with them about the reason behind their behaviour.
“Witnessing violence invokes certain emotions in the observer like an arousal. In that state, the slightest provocation can lead to more aggressive responses,” Dr Gandi said.
So, if you see a sudden change in your child’s behaviour, speak to them about it to understand the triggers. However, Dr Gandi advised parents to also understand that if the child’s behaviour changes drastically, or hasn’t been corrected for long, and is affecting their performance at school or their relationship with their family and friends, parents may be better placed to reach out to an expert to seek professional help.
What social media channels have to say
According to an article on UK-based news website standard.co.uk, here’s what TikTok, YouTube, and Snapchat had to say regarding the study.
A TikTok spokesperson said: “TikTok removes or age-restricts content that’s violent or graphic, most often before it receives a single view, and provides parents with tools to further customise content and safety settings for their teens’ account.”
A Snapchat spokesperson said: “Violence has devastating consequences and there is no place for it on Snapchat. When we find violent content we remove it immediately, we have no open newsfeed and the app is designed to limit opportunities for potentially harmful content to go viral. We encourage anyone who sees violent content to report it using our confidential in-app reporting tools. We work with law enforcement to support investigations and partner closely with safety experts, NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and the police to help create a safe environment for our community.”
And, a YouTube spokeswoman said the site has strict policies prohibiting violent content, and quickly removes material that violates its policies, with more than 946,000 videos taken down in the second quarter of 2023, as per The Standard report.