Talk by Dr Conrad Gempf. Part of the Youthwork Summit 'Inspire'...
Here’s what I’m thinking: one of the most, if not the most important role of youth workers today is cutting through rubbish thrown at young people by the media. Be it issues of body image, self-worth or sex, the bombardment aimed at young people is enough to cause devastating problems.
The thing is, we’re told this is no longer the case. People tell us about the ‘democratisation’ of the media – the idea that the internet, specifically Twitter, has changed the way people take in information. We can tailor our curators and news providers to our own tastes. Rather than a linear model that the television news provides, we can take a pick ‘n’ mix approach, bouncing from website to website, reading the stories that interest or excite us. The media narratives should no longer matter.
Except, that’s not the case is it? The stories and opinions on the front page of papers and inside glossy magazines still matter. Perhaps they’ve moved to trending topics and Instagram feeds, but our young people are still being told on a daily basis that they’re not good enough: being told that they’re too fat, too ugly and not precious. They’re being told not to trust anyone; that everyone needs to look after themselves and not worry about anyone else. Yes, the same people telling our young people that they’re worthless are also telling them that they’re the only people they should worry about. It’s a head-spinning, morale-sapping roller coaster that young people can’t get off.
So what can we do about it? I’d suggest there are two key things to discover: why and how. Why the media seems to relentlessly encourage us to feel terrible about almost everything and how we can cut through their genuinely damaging lies.
So, why? It’s important to remember that none of this exists in a vacuum. Glossy magazines and newspaper stories are just one part of a business. The glossy magazines that point out skins flaws and ‘overweight’ celebrities? Later on, those same magazines probably include features on ‘how to get perfect skin’ or this year’s hottest dieting fad. They’ll also include adverts for tonnes of products that would be perfect for blotchy patches or those wanting to lose weight in a hurry. This is no accident. Similarly, newspapers that inspire fear about certain politicians, religious groups or other things going on around the world have agendas. Some of these may be the views of their owners or specific advertisers but in others ways, it’s more pragmatic than that. If newspapers were to suggest that everything is OK, that the world is carrying on in a hunky dory fashion, then who would buy a newspaper? There’s nothing to worry about so no point even paying attention, right? The reality is that bad news, fear and uncertainty sell. They’re far more important to the survival of the traditional printed media than a funny, cuddly story about a dog on a skateboard.
While yes, magazines need to pay the bills (Look! All over this magazine: adverts!), the problem is when they crank the volume of these fears up to 11. Let’s be perfectly honest. Sometimes we will, as a magazine, commission and write content that works for certain advertisers, or groups of advertisers that want to advertise with us. There’s nothing wrong with that. Genuinely. That’s how it works and it’s how we can afford to keep this magazine going. But what if we went about it a different way? What if we picked on specific youth work or workers and suggested that they were doing a terrible job, in order to attract advertising from those who would help them? What if we wrote a scathing article about Alpha with an advert for Christianity Explored on the page opposite (disclaimer: we love both Alpha and Christianity Explored). That’s what glossy magazines and newspapers sometimes do: exploit their position and the vulnerabilities of their audience for money. That’s why they can seem so relentlessly negative, that’s why some of these publications seem to exist purely to make people feel worse about themselves.
So how can we help young people deal with this? The first thing to say is that, as per usual, many young people are canny and smart enough to cut through this *&!!@~# (insert appropriate expletive!) themselves. They see the reality of what’s going on and aren’t affected by it. But that’s not the case for many young people. For many young people, their mood and self-image are impacted and at times defined by what the media tells them. There are two approaches worth taking: first, take regular time to remind young people how brilliant, unique, special and beautiful they are. Shower them with what God thinks about them. Remind them that God loves them just as they are; that God created them and that they are utterly, utterly gorgeous. No one in society is telling them that so we need to speak prophetic, glorious truth into young people’s lives.
The other thing is this: talk about this stuff with young people. Bring in some magazines and newspapers and talk through the biases and non-editorial or commercial motivations for some of the content. Point out where the adverts back up the features, or where fears are being manipulated. Also show them how airbrushed most of the models and celebrities are, online as well as in traditional media. To misquote an old proverb: tell young people to ignore the media and they’ll be fine for a day, give them the tools to pull the media apart and they’ll do better for a lifetime.