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Kids these days... criminals or celebrities

Kids watching TV

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

How do young people appear in the news? Are they anti-social troublemakers? Dangerous knife-wielding hoodies? Or are they vulnerable and at risk from predatory strangers?

On Thursday thousands of young people are taking part in the BBC's School Report project, in which youngsters get a chance to present their own news stories.

But what do they think of how they themselves are depicted in news? And does all the negativity wear them down?

"When you see in the news about a teenager being murdered by a gang of other teenagers, people immediately think that all teenagers are like that and so stay away from them," says Tia, one of this year's school reporters.

Carolina, Serena, Victoria (left to right)
Disillusioned with normal news: Carolina, Serena, Victoria (left to right)
A pupil at St Marylebone School in Westminster, London, Tia is part of an articulate group of 12 and 13 year olds exploring the process of making news - for the young journalist scheme involving teams from 280 schools around the country.

But when youngsters see themselves in the mirror of the media they see a very negative picture.

These youngsters feel that news stereotypes them as either troublemakers or victims - and they complain that there's never anything more positive to balance this view.

"It's not fair on those teenagers who are good and those who are friendly to other people," says Tia. And adults are particularly likely to assume the worst about them when they're out in a group, they say.

This might not be the first generation to think that they get misrepresented by the newsmakers - but what is revealing is how a diet of unhappy stories about young people affects their own behaviour and the attitudes of their parents.

Carolina says that television stories about child abduction have cast a long shadow. "I'm always really aware, if I'm walking down the street I'm always looking over my shoulder to see if anyone's behind me."

When I used to go to a restaurant they'd talk to you - then I turned 12 and all of a sudden they wouldn't. It felt so cold
Victoria

And the girls talk about the constant exchange of text and phone messages with parents whenever they are out the house or there is the slightest change of plan. There seems to be a permanent level of managed fear and anticipation of danger.

The biggest news story that they can remember - and one they seem to know in great detail - is the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. And the girls talk about the restrictions on where and when they can walk - constraints which they take as part of growing up in modern Britain.

Victoria also describes how it feels when adult attitudes change as children get older.

"When I used to go to a restaurant they'd give you the kids' menu and talk to you and ask you how you were - and then I turned 12 and all of a sudden they wouldn't talk to me. It felt so cold."

Perhaps that's not surprising when the news habitually portrays teenagers as trouble. A study published recently by Brunel University analysed how youngsters appeared in more than 2,000 television news programmes over a month and found a very bizarre picture. In 82% of news stories featuring young people, they appeared either as the perpetrators or the victims of crime, usually involving violence. For the non-crime stories, the most typical reason for showing a young person was as a celebrity.

Crime or celebrity?

So in news terms, young people are either engaged in criminality, being murdered or appearing in a VIP area. They might make occasional forays into binge drinking and obesity.

Daily Mail front page
Thug, hoodie, lout, yob - one of many bywords for 'teenager'
Another report from the British Youth Council showed a similar picture for newspapers - with four times as many stories likely to show youngsters in a negative context.

The author and social commentator, Frank Furedi, sees this anxiety-ridden depiction of teenagers as a sign of deeper fault lines in society.

"Parents recycle their own fears through their children, their fear for their children is fear for themselves," he says. So if they won't allow their children to walk anywhere, it's a reflection of their own feelings of a lack of safety.

Professor Furedi is in the process of revising his 2001 book, Paranoid Parenting, for a new edition later this year, and he says that since then the sense of parental fear-mongering has become even worse.

"At least at that time I could still take a photograph of my son playing football with his team." Now he says even such a simple act could be misconstrued.

Generations apart

When all other adults and other people's children are seen as a threat, he says it means that the adult generation withdraws from any contact with young people - and bringing up children is "privatised" to the parents. Without any communication between the generations, adults become fearful and distant towards the youngsters hanging around, he says. In return, young people grow up starved of the influence of adults.

"It means that adults are leaving the life of children. It's completely unnatural."

But what should be in the news instead? Rather poignantly, while adults put youngsters into news stories about drugs and guns, these would-be reporters draw up their own relentlessly idealistic news agenda.

Serena wants to feature the threat of global warming, animal welfare and something positive like raising money for charity.

And finally, if there was a News at Teen, Carolina has one major request: make it less grindingly negative. "If I do watch the news, I always feels so depressed after it."

Here is a selection of your comments.

I really appreciate your running this article. As a teenager, I have noticed that the responses most adults have towards teenagers are at once condescending and suspicious. It's as if they expect us all to be either gangsters or on drugs, and at this point, I think all teenagers are sick of it. I certainly am.
Theora Tiffney, Santa Barbara United States

Bad news sells. However what is needed here is the empowerment of children, in particular politically. I would like to see children empowered to complain about their education, jobs, environment and the News Media giving them a voice to do this.... it's their world yet they have no say at all. Take the budget for example, I`m sure many kids are concerned about the level of national debt, I`ve yet to hear one child's opinion on the budget, even the article about oaths of allegiance by children didn't seem to have children's views at the centre of the article.
John Latham, Stafford UK

What a fantastic insight. it is such a shame that us as adults can't interact with children as mentors or an adult that children can look up to and learn from. Perhaps we should listen to children and young adults directly and not via the media.
Gary, Devon

It would be nice to see more balanced reporting of kids in the media, but very little good news is ever reported about anything - not just kids. I don't have kids myself, but in my experience some kids are good and some are downright horrible. Funnily enough, the horrible kids that I've met are normally the product of parents who spend more time in front of the telly than they do teaching their children right from wrong. Rotten kids are a problem, but rotten parents are the cause and that's the fault of our generation, not theirs.
Colin Morris, Sutton Bridge, UK

I'm a 21 year old, but I both look and tend to dress much younger, hence I am commonly mistaken for a teenager of perhaps sixteen. Often passers-by in the street will cross the road, pull their young offspring away from my path or fix me with a wary eye. It is very interesting to see how a person's attitude changes immediately on discovering my true age. If I had received this sort of treatment when I was actually a young (and impressionable) teenager, I may well have ended up acting the same way that some of our kids are doing today, as a direct result.
Charlotte Harper, Leeds, UK

I agree that children should be given the voice to show the world what they can be, what they can achieve and not just portrayed in a negative light. There are a lot of children out there that want to be inspired, want to show respect and want to make a difference, that's why we launched 4girlz Magazine, to give them a voice and to make a difference.
Angela Spencer, Hertfordshire, UK

Contary to what Victoria said, I am greatly annoyed when at the age of nearly sixteen I am still given children's menus and free gifts.
Jamie, Henfield, West Sussex / Winchester, Hampshire

I am a 14 year old and I am sick of this entire bad media about youths. I think that the young people who are considerate to others and their community are completely put into the shadows because of the amount of bad media. People get preconceived ideas about youths. I can remember I was in town one day alone and I saw an old lady drop her purse from across the street - I could see she hadn't noticed and I immediately ran across the road and picked up her purse. She was a few paces in front of me and she kept looking over her shoulder weary of my presence. I walked up to her and said "Excuse me" she turned to face me with a worried look on her face and just stared at me blankly. She didn't seem too happy to see me. She continued walking away from me. So I tapped her on the shoulder and repeated myself. I handed her the purse and said "You dropped this and I picked it up for you" she then said surprised "I thought you were after me". That experience made me sad.
Alice, Warrington

I feel it is disgraceful how teenagers are discriminated against! I am nearly 12 years old, I am in year 7 and on my way home form school I have been sworn at on the Tube! I'm NOT a THUG and was not misbehaving, yet I have to write this to assure readers that I did not deserve to be sworn at!
Julia, London




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