Schools and parents in Israel are asking young children to delete social media apps to shelter them from violent videos posted by Hamas militants being used as weapons of psychological warfare.
Photographs and videos showing Israeli residents being shot at point-blank range, the massacre of revellers at a music festival, and the brutal abduction of young children and the elderly have been filmed and posted online by Hamas fighters.
The viciousness is being discussed in homes, schools and offices globally with videos widely shared on Instagram, X – formerly Twitter – TikTok and forwarded on WhatsApp groups.
This has led to some education authorities and Israeli parents advising that access to social media be curtailed.
“All schools, kindergartens, child care – everything is closed so kids are home. This means way more screen time and with those awful videos, parents need to be extra cautious about what children are exposed to,” Maayan Rabinovich, a Tel Aviv mother of five children between five and 15, told The National.
Some schools in Israel warned parents to be vigilant and issued notices alerting them about disturbing images of people held captive pleading for their lives.
“We recommend that students remove these applications from their phones as they only serve the forces of psychological terror and damage the souls of our students,” one school in Tel Aviv said.
Ms Rabinovich and her husband explained to their teenage daughters, who have their own mobile phones, why they should delete social media apps and not open videos sent by friends on WhatsApp groups.
“We had a clear talk and explained how being exposed to such violent videos is damaging to the soul,” Ms Rabinovich said.
“It is heartbreaking that this is happening – it’s cruelty beyond words.
“This will be an ongoing challenge for us as parents to defend the emotional and mental health of our kids.”
While many of her friends have told their children to delete the apps, Ms Rabinovich said some have taken away their children’s phones for a limited period.
Visuals children will never forget
Schools in Israel have been shut since Saturday’s surprise attack by Hamas fighters, who raided southern Israel and launched thousands of rockets.
World leaders have condemned the strikes with US President Joe Biden denouncing Hamas as “sheer evil”.
Tel Aviv has vowed to annihilate Hamas and in retribution pummelled Gaza with the deadliest bombing in the 75-year history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ms Rabinovich said regular conversations to provide information and answer questions about the war was key.
“Children are curious and may want to see what it is that everyone is talking about.”
“It’s a lot of responsibility on parents to convey to kids that we will explain what is going on but don’t go to those videos.
“It’s a very delicate task but without the death pornography that those videos expose the kids to.”
Her daughter, Halel Rabinovich, 13, said teachers told pupils over Zoom meetings last week that they had deleted their social media accounts and encouraged the children to do the same.
No teaching is conducted on the daily Zoom calls but pupils pray, interact and chat with classmates.
Halel said she understood the reasoning behind cutting off access.
“It’s super important to tell kids it’s just not worth it to see these pictures and videos,” she said.
“These are not pictures we can forget. It is something that will be engraved in our minds and follow us for the rest of our lives.”
The teenager is comfortable for her mother to relay information about the war to her so she can stay away from distressing content.
“There are bad things happening now and sometimes I feel this is my country and I need to know,” Halel said.
“But I know the main things – there is a war, people are being killed. I don’t need to know every specific story and seeing the pictures is not helpful.”
She does have friends who want to keep accessing online content because they see it as an important source of information.
“My friend says knowing what is happening is helpful and can calm her down rather than not knowing things,” she said.
“But I think kids don’t know how hard this will be later and how traumatising it will be for them.”
Instead of being on social media, Halel and her older sister Uri spend time volunteering, packing dry food and toiletries for soldiers and filling care boxes for families from southern Israel whose homes were burnt and destroyed by Hamas militia.
Her younger siblings also made decorations for the bomb shelters with signs that read: Smile, it will be all right.
Trauma experts concerned for young minds
Mental health experts said the alarming content being repeatedly watched and shared was dangerous for the wellbeing of children.
Judith Spanglet, a trauma therapist in Ashkelon, said children did not have the capacity to cope with the horrific images, which could cause long-term damage.
“To see the destruction, massacre, mutilation and terrorism is too much for a child to handle,” she said.
“Children can become very closed, turn aggressive or become detached.
“They don’t know how to deal with the anger. They feel this could happen to them.”
She said a tremendous effort was required to counsel children struggling with trauma.
“I have never seen so much brutality and when this is recorded and people are repeatedly watching it, that is horrendous,” Ms Spanglet said.
“It’s not just children here in Israel, children and people all over the world will be hurt when they see that people can be so inhumane, when they see the same pictures over and over and over again.”
Some private Jewish schools in the US too have recommended that parents restrict the social media content their children access.
Michelle Sarna, a psychologist in a Jewish private school in New York, said social media and the videos were a form of psychological warfare with the images instilling terror that could leave a lasting impact on adults and children.
“This conflict feels different in its scale and scope and also the prevalence of social media and personal devices,” she said.
“There also appears to be an explicit and deliberate attempt to terrorise and horrify people by exposing them to brutal and gruesome images.”
Ms Rabinovich from Tel Aviv suggests parents frequently show children that they are loved.
“Constantly hugging my children is the biggest thing I can give them – for them to know they are loved,” she said.
“As scary and frightening as it is, we will get through this together with a lot of tears, sadness and grief, but this will not break us.”