The way the world consumes news has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. With social media and 24 hour news channels, it is a greater part of our lives than it has ever been before. Young people are growing up with news all around them. They watch major incidents unfolding live on TV and have access to vast amounts of analysis on social media – often from unreliable sources.
Fake news is a regularly coined term and indeed, there is a huge amount circulating at any one time. It is sensationalist, exaggerated and often patently false information, circulated to increase readership and revenue.
As adults we can usually (but not always) discern the difference between what it real and what is not. We can understand the motives of the authors and process the information with caution. Yet children often do not have the experience or ability to make such judgements. They are also not conditioned to question at home or at school what they are hearing or reading – and this is leading to huge issues.
We poll children every week about topics in the news. Outside of worries about their families, terrorism is the single biggest fear in their lives. This finding is corroborated by a huge increase in cases heard by the NSPCC and Childline from children suffering with growing levels of anxiety relating to the news – be it Donald Trump, Brexit, terrorism or North Korea.
There has never been a more important time to ensure young people have access to unbiased, accurate and non-sensationalist news. This allays fear and enables a child to question less reliable sources of information. Developing this critical thinking is key – and to do this we must address the issue not just of fake news, but also how real news is covered.
The lack of support to help children develop critical thinking skills is undoubtedly leading to increasing levels of mental health problems among young people. The world for many children is overwhelming, with reality being skewed by inaccurate information. Many live their lives completely online, connecting to friends via social media rather than in real life.
Children don’t always have the literacy skills needed to discern the difference between opinion and fact. Ideally, more emphasis would be put on literacy in the classroom but teachers are often hindered by a severe lack of funding and training. As a result, our children are not being equipped with the skills they need to process the increasingly digital and news-led world around them.
Of course, we don’t want the media to avoid difficult and upsetting issues, but constantly substituting positive, good news stories for negative ones, or pulling exclusively negative angles out of stories, is an issue that must be addressed.
I am the editor of a children’s newspaper, First News, and my team and I strive to deliver the facts to children, no matter how upsetting a particular event. We know that when armed with the real story, children can process the information more effectively and less anxiously. However, we also work hard to highlight the very good things that are happening. Out of every terrible tragedy there will always be stories of human kindness and inspiring bravery. It is crucial that children see both sides, helping them to make sense of devastating news.
Parents, schools and the media need to recognise the damaging effect that inaccurate and sensationalist news is having on our young people. The launch of a Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools to investigate this issue is a good start – but we must ensure that real action follows.