Helping young people exposed to upsetting content

Before young people start using technology, it’s crucial you talk to them about the type of things they might see online and develop strategies on how to deal with upsetting content. Your child may find things they never intended to look at so talking regularly about their online activities and encouraging them to come to…

young girl looking at phone looking concerned

Before young people start using technology, it’s crucial you talk to them about the type of things they might see online and develop strategies on how to deal with upsetting content. Your child may find things they never intended to look at so talking regularly about their online activities and encouraging them to come to you is one of the best conversations you can have. If your child has been exposed to upsetting content it can hard to know how to help. Netsafe has developed the following advice to guide you through this difficult situation.

What to do if a young person is exposed to upsetting content

If a young person comes to you about something they have seen online, the most important thing you can do is take what they are saying seriously. The other things to do are:

  • Try not to assign blame about how they came across the material
  • Reassure them that it isn’t their fault
  • Don’t trivialise what they have seen by saying that the material may not be real (it is important to deal with their feelings first)
  • Provide comfort and assurance
  • Normalise their response, e.g., ‘It’s normal to be scared/angry/upset/confused’
  • Don’t overreact by taking away the technology – this will make them less likely to talk to you if something else happens and it can make them feel like they are to blame
  • Make sure that they know you are glad that they came to you about it.

It’s important to seek professional help for your child if intense feelings or behaviours persist.

How to prevent exposure to upsetting content

One of the best strategies is to talk with your family regularly about online risks and how to avoid them as well as encouraging young people to discuss things that disturb them.

It’s important to keep an open line of communication about what they do. Talking with your child about their experiences from the first time they go online can be helpful in keeping the lines of communication open for when something disturbs them. When you talk with them about school, friends or sport remember to ask about their online lives and friends too.

While there is a place in young peoples’ lives for filtering tools, as they develop they will want their freedom and privacy. It is quite easy to get around filtering or to use a computer, phone or games console to get online either at home or away from home (at school, at a friend’s house or at the library) which is why education remains the most important thing you can do.

How to talk to young people about upsetting content

Once a young person has stopped feeling upset, it can be helpful to provide context for what they have seen.  You might like to start by discussing the content of what was viewed, whether it was real or not and how it may have been accessed.

The discussion is important even if their attitude is one of ‘no big deal’ at the time. This will help them understand how the material was made, whether it was real, how the material fits with your family values and provides them with a chance to ask questions.


  • What might young people encounter online? Along with many positive things, young people may encounter some things which could have a negative effect. This material might include a scary text, violent or scary images, hateful content, sexual material or illegal material (ie. child sexual abuse material, age restricted material, bestiality, necrophilia, extreme violence etc).
  • How might they encounter it? Young people are often curious so might seek out some of this content themselves, but it is also easy for them to find these things accidentally or against their will. Sometimes a friend or older sibling might show them an image, encourage them to look for dangerous things or they might follow a link that is designed to look innocent but actually hosts harmful material or they might have it sent to them.
  • What type of response will a young person have? Young people will react individually to upsetting online content and how they express their distress will depend on the child’s age and level of development. Exposure to this type of content may result in confusion, adverse physical and/or psychological effects, e.g., withdrawal, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, aggression.A young person may also act blasé or they may not understand what they have seen until a later stage in their development when the effects surface.If a young person is displaying symptoms of trauma after being exposed to something online, it’s important to deal with the trauma first, before trying to discuss the content in any depth. It’s also important to remember that children can and do recover from exposure to upsetting online content with the support of caring adults.
  • How should I respond when my child tells me about upsetting content? If an adult in the child’s life strongly reacts to hearing about the child’s exposure, the child’s negative response may mimic the anxiety and concern of their caregiver even when the young child doesn’t understand the material.
  • What happens if the content is real? Some of the material a young person sees may be real or even illegal e.g., pornography, hate-sites or objectionable material. Contextualising this for the young person can help them to understand that people use the internet for many different reasons and sometimes it can be for criminal or antisocial purposes. How you explain this would need to fit in with the specific values of your family and the age/developmental level of your child. If you do encounter anything illegal, it is important that you do not show it or send it to anyone else, as this could be classed as distribution, which is illegal in NZ.
  • What should you do if the content is fake? It may be helpful to talk with the young person about the validity of the information. You can explain that some content found online may not be real, and that photos can be altered and stories made up. Online pornography is acting and a fantasy-like presentation of sex that does not reflect real relationships. It might be helpful to show them how material can be altered by using your own technology so that they have an understanding that what they have seen online may not be real. Acknowledge that even though something is made up, we can still feel upset (you might like to use a movie they have seen as an example). It is important to acknowledge the young person’s experience and validate their feelings.

More advice and information


You’re currently within the ‘Understand’ section of our Online Safety Parent Toolkit where online risks and challenges are explored. This is the first step in our seven-step framework designed to help parents and whānau with digital parenting in a rapidly changing world. We recommend reading through each step of the Toolkit as this will guide you on how to support your child to confidently access digital opportunities and reduce online harm.


If you’re concerned about the immediate safety of you or someone else, please call 111. If you want help or expert incident advice, you can contact us. Our service is free, non-judgemental and available seven days a week.


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