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Miranda Green describes a way to help anxious teenagers navigate the news ‘storm’
This is an extraordinary moment for news. At the start of the year we watched Egypt's uprising and felt hope and fear in the balance as the 'Arab spring' began. Then Japan's triple disaster, marked by conflicting reports and daily increasing human misery, shocked and scared us. Now the UK is engaged in a military intervention in Libya against a dictator vowing martyrdom and reprisals.
Meanwhile there's a complicated political situation and an increasingly bitter debate about the economy and public services here in the UK, with plenty of voices raised on the side of doom and gloom.
Any anxiety about the state of the world that we adults are feeling is likely be multiplied several times over in young people: research shows teenagers find news incomprehensible and distressing in equal measure. Today's bombardment of constant updates online and on rolling broadcast news stations leaves them stressed, anxious and then repelled. They turn off or stop reading.
Sadly, many may already have decided to disengage from the Big Wide World and its terrors. But there are many practical things schools can do to help teenagers cope with the barrage of events and opinions in the media, and even to find a positive way of turning their natural curiosity into a lifelong habit of intelligent analysis and enjoyment of current affairs.
"There is a need to reassure children about the terrible combination of things we're seeing at the moment," says Nigel Richardson, former Headmaster of The Perse School in Cambridge and an expert in pastoral care. "We need to be watchful for the signs of anxiety because young people can suddenly and unexpectedly be caught out by their own emotions."
The mother of two young boys tells me she is relieved when they get away from relatives' houses where the television is always on. The younger, show's about to move to secondary school, gets very worried by disaster stories 'in case something happens to people he loves'. But the older has come through an anxious period during his GCSEs to discover an active interest in politics, partly because he has been encouraged to discuss what intrigued or worried him.
This 'journey' is key to understanding teenage reactions to news. Contrary to assumptions about a general apathy among the young, research shows that teenagers do want to understand the events unfolding in the world around them. In fact, surveys both here and in the US show they yearn for in-depth information and reporting. But there's a dual problem.
First, teenagers feeling their way towards life as an independent adult are unusually sensitive to suggestions that the world is dangerous. Secondly, the mainstream media is difficult for young people, who have not developed the same news consumption habits as older generations. They jump about until something, usually online, 'catches their eye', but often news just becomes wallpaper.
A group of American academics at Northwestern University, researching how teenagers digest the news, reported in January 2008 that young people felt 'hopeless and powerless' when they read or hear about crises at home and abroad. 'For teens, news is stressful and reminds them of the peril in the world,' their report says.
I well remember having sleepless nights in the 1980s about what I and my friends felt sure was an imminent and unavoidable nuclear war: we all joined youth CND out of sheer panic about being wiped out. For his part, Nigel Richardson remembers sitting in class during the Cuban missile crisis and wondering if he and the school would still be there the next day. These days, parents say that younger teenagers tend to come home sobbing about climate change - but if we're not careful it could now be nuclear power and the turmoil in the Middle East as well. Do, what can we do?
These days, media saturation has turned suggestions that the world might be perilous into a constant, deafening roar. "The foreign correspondents are heroic, but for children it's just the same disaster being played out repeatedly." says Dr Richardson. "Schools should emphasise to parents to avoid 24 hour news being on hour after hour."
The US researchers recommend that parents and schools point teenagers towards reliable and easily digestible news source. But these news sources have to provide a different sort of news analysis specifically for a teenage mindset offering good sources of information and understanding, and a springboard for debate and action 'to diminish the negative associations teens have with news and to lift their feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness'.
Being encouraged to research the sources of anxiety and write about their feelings of peril also helps, as does finding out how to take positive action. At The Day, we try not to assume any prior knowledge of a topic, and provide a background Q & A, debating topics and follow-up activities on each story.
Crucially, it's important not to try to shield you teenager too much. Vicky Tuck, Headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies College, says 9/11 was a turning point for her, realising that the school had to lead calmly through reactions to crises. After the Japanese earthquake, she brought the school together to talk about it, then to raise money for charity - a great way of feeling useful.
She also approves of teachers using news media in class in a responsible way. "One of the purposes of education is to enable people to cope with uncertainty, doubt and risk, but to do that in a supportive way. So you have to make sure they understand what's going on."
And there's a valuable dividend. Because a teenager is on such a dramatic journey of self-discovery, being able to understand, digest and debate the news can bring feelings of pride to counteract their anxiety and become part of a new, news-aware 'persona'. Some of the pupils in the US study even enjoyed standing out from the crowd by becoming the 'go to' guy on what's in the news.
As a journalist who has enjoyed a fascinating career in both politics and media, I would argue that this burgeoning sense of oneself as an active participant in thereat global conversation should be cultivated in any teenager who shows signs of sensitivity to or interest in the news. Who knows? Given the right sort of encouragement, that particularly argumentative and opinionated rebel in the back row could be a future prime minister or media magnate.