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UK children’s ChildLine: Read the coverage carefully

An interesting finding from the UK ChildLine’s just-released report: “For the first time in the charity’s 28-year history, more counselling took place online (59%) than by telephone (41%),” the BBC reported about the free, 24-hour counseling service for Britons up to age 19. A disturbing finding: “a significant increase in racist bullying.… A common theme was children being called a ‘terrorist’ or a ‘bomber’ or being told to ‘go back to where they came from.'” That is as much of a red flag about young people’s media environment as about young people.

Another disturbing finding: that the ChildLine handled “4,507 cases of cyberbullying in 2012-13, up from 2,410 in 2011-12.” As much as anything else, this illustrates how much critical thinking we need to bring to news reports – not just because of the 24/7 news cycle and the fact that the news will always remain focused on the exception to the rule, not the rule.

We can’t know how much of the growth in children’s phone and online calls to the helpline are because of their awareness of it, its accessibility to them online or actual growth of problems, but it’s worth considering that these numbers aren’t only because things are much worse for children or children’s behavior is worse (as is often suggested in commentaries on such news).

“We see two elements of the alarmism narrative in this article,” wrote David Finkelhor, who tracks social problem data involving children as director of University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. “First, we see an assumption that these statistics show a worsening of the problem. [For example,] more kids are calling the hotline about cyberbullying. But since all social interaction is moving into electronic mode, it does not mean that kids are experiencing more bullying or more nastiness, just that more of everything is happening online. In any case,” Dr. Finkelhor wrote, “hotline calls may not be a good indicator of underlying trends.

“Second,” he continued, “there is the assertion that the problems of today’s kids are worse. The issues facing children today are very different from those that faced us as children. The stranger danger of ‘olden days’ (which everybody [at least in the social science field] knows now was a low probability bogeyman) is contrasted with depression, self-harm, online bullying and suicide of the present era. Anybody remember [the fear of] nuclear annihilation? And the assertion that depression, suicide and bullying are new in the lives of children is absurd. We are talking about it more [emphasis mine, not his]. The data from the US actually show declines in suicide and bullying since the 1990s. The bullying declines have been replicated in international data.” The professor is referring to his 2013 paper “Trends in Bullying and Peer Victimization,” citing US Department of Justice data.

But, while the need for media literacy on the part of news consumers of all ages has never been greater, it’s important to add that no matter how the ChildLine’s report, “Can I Tell You Something?”, is represented, the helpline is doing British youth a tremendous service. Launched 28 years ago, the service “has counselled about 3.2 million children,” the BBC reports.

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