Marginalised, excluded, demonised?
Traditionally adults view children as pure and innocent, and “youth” as a problem, seeing young people as “anti-social”, “irresponsible” and “rebellious”.
Most of us are guilty of that kind of stereotyping. Include Youth and the Childhood, Transition and Social Justice Initiative are involved in a joint research project to investigate how young people are portrayed in the media, how they feel about it and what needs to be done.
The first part of the project, which involved holding workshops with children and young people aged between six and 25, has now been published and is available here.
But, first and most fundamentally, why does it matter that older people have such views about young people, and why is this especially the case in Northern Ireland?
The rationale provided in the report is chilling: “As a society emerging from three decades of conflict, and in the early years of political devolution, Northern Ireland has faced particular circumstances and significant challenges. Those concerning children and young people, including the persistence of informal policing and punishments by paramilitaries, remain paramount.
“During this extended period of transition in Northern Ireland the negative representation of children and young people has the potential to fuel and sustain the control and punishment of children by paramilitaries.”
In the rest of the UK and elsewhere young people are marginalised, the current cohort of young people is often characterised as an “abandoned generation”: there are extremely high rates of youth unemployment in many parts of the world, rising levels of mental health problems and social mobility is declining, meaning life prospects can be bleak.
Yet as Professor Phil Scraton from Queens University observes: “Society will not accept responsibility for the position young people are left in. The emphasis needs to shift from what they do, to what’s done to them.”
You can add to that the growing evidence in Northern Ireland that the trauma caused by conflict is intergenerational, so the scars suffered by parents, transfer to their offspring. This makes the plight of young people an issue for all of us, not simply an alleged “behavioural problem.”
The new research attempts to break new ground, by giving voice to young people, who rarely get heard in the media, exploring what they think about the coverage that they receive.
“We’re breaking the silence,” he says.
The project quotes young people extensively, and the frustration with the way they are treated is all too evident: “The paper would get done for racism or discrimination [if they wrote about other social groups in the same manner as they referred to young people].”
“Because media portrays kids like that so much, older people… it’s instilled so much fear.”
“If your Ma doesn’t love you, you are gonna wreck home, do drugs, drink and do what you do… but they [the newspaper] are sayin’ that it’s all the young person’s fault”
These are authentic unheard voices and they deserve an audience.
Scraton tells a story that makes the point well. He and a colleague had arranged to meet a group of young people at a community centre. They had booked a room. But shortly after they started their session, a group of adults arrived and told them to leave. They moved to another room which had been booked for an exercise class. They sat outside in the car park and held their meeting there.
It soon became clear that the adults who had thrown them out of the first room which they had booked were discussing them.
Scraton said: “One lad said – just look at them they are all in there talking about us but they never talk to us. With that he went to the window and squashed his face against it, reinforcing the adults views of the young people. “
Scraton believes that breaking that division, and encouraging more dialogue between young people and adults will help to break down negativity and misconceptions. His says his own experience of carrying out research with young people has been entirely positive.
As part of the project Include Youth’s communications officer Sharon Whittaker has written an extremely useful guide to help young people engage with the media, which Scope would highly recommend. If part of the problem is that not enough young peoples’ voices are heard, then helping and supporting young people to work with the media, has got to be part of the solution.
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