Kids are learning about the Russia-Ukraine conflict on TikTok with a mix of snark and fear. Here's how parents can explain, not alarm.

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#MyFirstWar is trending on TikTok, and so are news updates about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Experts say parents can talk to their kids about what they're seeing on the app without causing alarm. (Photo: Getty Creative)
#MyFirstWar is trending on TikTok, and so are news updates about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Experts say parents can talk to their kids about what they're seeing on the app without causing alarm. (Photo: Getty Creative)

For adults, it comes as no surprise that this world can sometimes be a scary place. For tweens and teens, however, this information can come as a bit of a shock, especially when they find out on their TikTok For You Page between videos of kittens and the latest food trend.

Gen Z is growing increasingly concerned about hostilities between Russia and Ukraine thanks to videos they're seeing on TikTok. But although this particular conflict is still developing, children finding out about global news on social media platforms is nothing new. Still, TikTok and other social platforms rarely provide the full picture — so how can parents calm children down without lying about the severity of real life struggles?

"My audience ranges in age and worldly experience but I can say with 100% certainty that they are not taking [the conflict between Russia and Ukraine] lightly," says Lisa Remillard, a long-time television journalist and co-founder of broadcast and digital network BEONDTV who has posted videos on TikTok covering the conflict.

Remillard's take on the growing conflict has garnered thousands of comments and views, in part because of the understandable-but-thorough nature of the California reporter's explanations. After more than 20 years as a television news reporter and anchor, Remillard says she decided to bring that same editorial style to TikTok in part to help young people have a better understanding of the news.

"I find that my younger followers fall into two camps," she tells Yahoo Life. "One camp is completely new to international conflict and they say things like 'I hate it here' or 'What's happening? I'm scared.' The other set is grateful that I am able to explain a complicated history to them, put it in context and make it happen in an easily understandable way."

While Remillard may see mainly concern in her comment section, the Russian and Ukrainian conflict has also caused more flippant reactions from some teens on TikTok – #MyFirstWar has been a popular hashtag on the app, resulting in videos where young people use satire and silly sounds to compare the global conflict to a first date.

Robert Stern runs The Social Leader, a consulting agency that helps individuals and businesses better utilize social media. Stern has worked extensively studying social media trends since 2008, and says while teens' reactions to the scary news may appear callous, they're actually a normal way of processing their anxieties about the conflict.

"This generation's way of coping with what they're feeling is by talking through it on social media," he says. "It's a way for them to express themselves without being as uncomfortable as talking to someone in person ... while social media does allow for [inappropriate] anonymous behavior, it's also a great place to find like-minded people, which can be both good or bad depending upon the conversation topics."

Aiden ElDifrawi, is a Chicago-based Gen Z-er who often contemplates issues like this on his podcast, Hold Me Back, which he hosts with his dad, Ash. In their podcast, the duo discusses differences between their two generations.

EIDifrawi, 16, echoes Stern on the ease of ambiguity on TikTok but says the issue with the way some of his peers are handling these types of conflicts through social media posts runs a bit deeper.

"I think partially it is a coping mechanism," he says. "It's a stressful situation ... not many people really know what's happening so people who make light of it, especially these meme pages, are just looking for quick followers and likes. They see opportunity in large global events and happenings, and if there's an opportunity for clout, they'll take it."

EIDifrawi says it's a tricky thing for himself and his peers to learn about huge events like the conflict between Russia and Ukraine on social platforms. "It's not typically a good thing, because there are so many trolls on TikTok and people who spread misinformation," he says. "Getting all your information off of TikTok is not a good idea."

Instead, ElDifrawi suggests peers do their own research on topics they become interested in from TikTok on secondary platforms and reliable websites.

So what are parents to do when their tween or teen's research includes asking Mom or Dad's opinion about news that can feel scary, even to grown-ups?

Jessica Biren Caverly is a mom of two, licensed psychologist and owner of Western Connecticut Behavioral Health. From a psychological standpoint, Biren Caverly says it's not ideal for children and teens to get their first bits of information on any subject from TikTok. When they do, however, she says it's a good time to make sure kids have the most accurate and truthful information possible.

"The negative impact of hearing information from an unreliable and biased source is that children then form opinions and ideals based on misinformation," Biren Caverly explains. "A person may learn one fact and form a belief, but to change that belief, you may need more than 100 new facts to make that significant change. The information first learned is important in impression formation: That's where the damage to children from TikTok comes into play."

When attempting to provide those truthful new facts, Biren Caverly says there are different ways to address unsettling topics like war or violence with kids of different age groups.

High school students

"For a high school student, I would start by asking them what they know and then be open and honest, clearing up any misconceptions," she says. "Let them ask questions and share all of the information you know."

"High schoolers will soon be adults and even more important — they will soon be voters," she adds. "They need to understand the issues so that they can use their voting power to best support their beliefs."

Middle school students

For the middle school crowd, it can be helpful to also start with what they already know.

Biren Caverly suggests a focus on "taking out the sensationalized and explaining what is happening in an even tone with little voice inflection." Then, she says, compare the situation to another situation the child may already know about, like the Civil War, and discuss comparisons and any potential impact on their day-to-day life.

Elementary school students

Biren Caverly recommends explaining to elementary-aged kids that they may hear things from their older siblings or classmates, then helping them to clear up possible misconceptions in advance.

"Provide a short narrative and ask the child to summarize it back to see what they have retained," she says. "Next help them to understand by comparing it to a time the child disagreed with a peer or neighbor and share that there are neighboring countries fighting as well, but they use warfare and soldiers."

Preschoolers

If you're parent to a preschooler, start by asking your child's preschool teacher what, if anything, the children have discussed at school and use similar language. "I would focus on an activity here, such as coloring a picture of a soldier," she says. "I may also ask what their favorite food is and see if it is something we can donate to an organization that will send products to soldiers."

Remillard, whose most recent TikTok explaining the conflict has been viewed over 300,000 times, says often, the best way to teach your children is by doing the right thing yourself.

"The best thing you can do for your children is to be responsible with your intake of news and information," she says. "Children parrot what their parents say: I see it every day in my comment section. If you are careful, smart, know exactly where your information is coming from and form your opinions based on that, your kids will take their cues from you."

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