by Rebecca Thomas
On hearing the tragic news that filtered down the motu yesterday about a school outing that changed students’ and whānau lives forever my natural negativity bias stepped in. My first thought when the news broke drifted straight to my own children. Are they safe? What’s happening at their school? How bad is the rain/flood water there? Will they be sent home?
After processing the intensity of the information my initial reaction was to text my youngest son. He’s the same age as the student who was unaccounted for. No response. I explained away the unresponsive worry to myself once I had remembered that phones are now banned in classes at his school. I swapped panicking for pacing.
Eventually parents received a message from the school to say that the buses had been cancelled, and that students needed picking up. Relieved the staff meeting I had planned was cancelled, I raced to pick my son up in person. I squeezed him tightly as he stepped into the car. No fifteen-year-old boy likes that type of public attention, so I explained myself.
He didn’t sound surprised, instead he already knew about the event.
By the time he had clocked out of school, turned his phone on and waited the five minutes it took for him to walk to our pickup point, social media had informed him about this tragedy. News spreads fast. I began to wonder, just how quickly and how often does bad news infiltrate our young people’s social media feeds?
This sensitive and emotional story had reached my son in a school that has banned phones, in the time it took him to walk to my car. I wondered what other powerful media messages made their way to his phone with such speed. I wondered if I hadn’t hugged him and brought up this story would he have told me he already knew about it?
How much do our young people absorb, and how quickly do these pervasive messages spread? Most importantly, how often do our young people share these messages with us?
The speed and quantity of this ubiquitous, negative information travelling to our vulnerable teenagers made me realise just how quickly it can impact their wellbeing. As a species we are programmed to respond to negativity, it’s rooted in our evolutionary psychology, our lizard brains. Being attuned to potential threats in our past maintained our survival; our brains are wired to be sensitive to negative experiences and information.
Whilst negativity bias served us well in the past, it can have drawbacks in today's modern world. In the context of media and communication, the constant exposure to negative news and events can contribute to heightened anxiety, stress, and give us a skewed perception of reality. It can also affect decision-making processes, leading to risk aversion or a tendency for us to focus on potential negative outcomes rather than positive ones.
Bad news often carries a heavy emotional weight, leaving a lasting impact on our young people. Violence, natural disasters, or social injustices can evoke fear, sadness, anxiety, or anger. These messages may make our teenagers experience a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, especially when they feel powerless to effect change.
So, how can we address this impact, how can we mitigate the effects of this trauma on our young people?
#1 Open Dialogue - an open door line of communication where we can have conversations about current events allows us to express our emotions and concerns. This needs to be a safe space where everyone is clear about the roles of communicating and active listening. Talking is important.
“Still healing from things I don’t talk about.”
#2 Media Literacy - critical literacies where we invite evaluation and interrogation of sources of news and information will be essential armour for our young people. Encourage them to ask questions and seek diverse perspectives, to differentiate between sensationalism and reliable content.
#3 Self Care - Knowing we have creative outlets to combat stress and how to access them when needed will help with self-regulation. Being aware that art, sport, nature, music, mindfulness are avenues and resources available to us is important. Encouraging a healthy boundary around media habits and unplugging (and role modelling this) is also a useful strategy.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a while, including you.”
#4 Positive Action - Empower students to take positive action in response to bad news. Encourage involvement in community service or initiatives that promote social change. This helps them channel their concerns into meaningful efforts and regain a sense of agency. Don’t allow them to become ‘victims’.
#5 Professional Support - If our young people exhibit persistent distress or struggles with their mental health, it is essential to provide access to professional support services, such as school counsellors or mental health professionals, who can offer guidance and assistance.
Helping our younger generation to consciously seek out positive information, practice gratitude, and balance negative news consumption with uplifting or inspiring content, can mitigate the impact of our negativity bias and foster a more balanced perspective.
You can find two tools here (free for the next 4 days) to begin healing for our young adults.