Children’s mental health has been jeopardised more than ever in this last one year, and the internet is very much to be blamed for this – but probably not in ways you would first assume. Parents and carers are as much guilty of making our children the victims of pandemic propaganda as teachers and other professionals. While there is a need for a wider coalition to prevent mass and social media from becoming scaremongers of massive proportions ever again, being a parents’ organisation our duty on Safer Internet Day is to highlight the need for parents and carers to be supported in order to become critical thinkers and thus enable them to protect children if anything like this ever happens again in the future. 2020 has shown us that we need to find ways of making down-to-earth, often undereducated people’s voices heard to counterbalance harms caused by messages spreading on the internet.
Child psychiatrists[i] have called the attention of the public to an unprecedented number of acute cases filling specialised hospital wards all over Europe. Many countries are reporting a dramatic increase in child suicide[ii] and PTSD[iii] is becoming a condition for large numbers of children. This is due to children being prevented from normal social life as much as the mantra of children being “granny killers” and making them pathologically afraid of a virus of nearly zero danger to them. While scientific evidence[iv] clearly shows that children neither need to be prevented from playing together, nor have a role in spreading the Covid-19 virus to the elderly, mass media was pushing messages that were contrary to facts.
Critical thinking is a core competence defined in the LifeComp[v] published by the European Union as “assessment of information and arguments to support reasoned conclusions and develop innovative solutions”. Other definitions include “Critical thinking is the act of analysing facts to understand a problem or topic thoroughly” and “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” The Council of Europe’s active citizenship framework directly links critical thinking to personal responsibility that is also a responsibility of parents for the minors they raise.
Critical thinking includes identification of prejudice, bias, propaganda, self-deception, distortion, misinformation, and this was a nearly impossible task for many in the past year, and there are very good reasons for this. As described by Nobel Prize winning social psychologists Daniel Kahneman[vi] and Richard Thaler[vii], people tend to think unilaterally and highly overestimate dangers of events pushed in their face all the time. It happens with plane crashes, terror attacks, earthquakes, floods as well as the coronavirus. And internet algorithms prioritising content you have already clicked on are amplifying this effect.
While it is a difficult task, professionals are highly responsible for the lack of critical thinking and increasing the effect of scaremongering by media. Nearly all activities of Parents International have been aiming for enabling professionals to support parents in their role better, but we may need to rethink. In the past months, the strongest promoters of child rights and common sense have been people with low levels of education and a very strong root in reality.
On this Safer Internet Day, we may need to rethink who is empowering whom and start appreciating all those parents who were able to prevent their children from harm as much as possible since the beginning of 2020. They were doing it in a virtual and physical environment taking its toll on them as well with jobs being lost, income becoming scarce, schools closing and requiring parents to teach their children, regular health care becoming unavailable and scaremongering impacting them as much as their children. We would like to take this opportunity to applaud them and to start exploring ways of mainstreaming their down-to-earth approach for protecting children’s mental health and well-being in one of the most difficult periods for parents and children all over world. At the same time, it is also high time to make mass online media and social network algorithms accountable for their actions.