“Everybody’s crazy, drive safely.”
That’s the mantra of my mother I remember best from my teenhood. Granted, her negative, imbalanced worldview was simply a way to contain her anxiety as I began to drive.
Her words returned to me recently as my children increasingly navigate the internet, originally dubbed the “information superhighway.”
Like most parents, my wife and I implemented age-appropriate internet restrictions as our children grew. But we learned that as children age, they need to develop the same critical thinking skills adults use when wading through the sea of clickbait that accompanies online activity — e.g. sensational headlines, partisan hyperbole, etc. In essence, all that clutter tells children, especially teens: “Everybody’s crazy, good luck out there.”
Such a mantra amused me as a teen, but it became more serious for my younger daughter one day when she was 14. After being online, she seemed emotionally depleted and hopeless. When I asked what was wrong, she replied with a list of global concerns that included environmental problems, terrorism and gun violence.
Negative thoughts flashed first: I’m so sad for her! She’s too young to worry about huge problems! I hate the internet!
Then, positive thoughts emerged: I’m proud she cares! She’s so much more informed than I was! But most important was my final thought: She needs help — kids need context.
So first I reassured her she was safe and the world was not terrible. Then I tried to provide some history behind these issues. For example, we discussed the incredible progress made regarding pollution since the Industrial Revolution began. Beyond that, I started researching how to gain a more balanced worldview.
Balanced worldview vital to mental growth, health
The most helpful source was a recent book by Hans Rosling titled Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things are Better Than You Think. If you sniff naive optimism, sniff not. Rosling declares: “Everything is not fine. We should still be very concerned. … But it is just as ridiculous, and just as stressful, to look away from the progress that has been made.”
Rosling’s goal is to fight the “devastating global ignorance” nurtured by information overload. He shows how vast majorities of people in many countries are stuck in negative, inaccurate mindsets regarding key world problems. For example, he asked thousands of people: “In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has: A) almost doubled, B) remained more or less the same, or C) almost halved?” The answer is C, but only 7 percent of respondents worldwide answered correctly.
No doubt extreme poverty is still a terrible thing that needs to be addressed. But Rosling’s point is that if significant progress is not noted and studied in a balanced way, people concerned about an issue may end up feeling as hopeless as my daughter was. Ironically, such an overwhelming, one-sided worldview can actually help maintain the status quo.
So how can parents foster a more balanced worldview for children in 2019?
First, treat “world-talk” like “self-talk.” We know the importance of modeling resilience when talking about ourselves in front of our kids; try to do the same when talking about the world.
Second, consider showing your children more positive global news sources to balance the negative ones. (Hat tip to Dad 2.0 Summit’s Twitter feed for highlighting the “intelligent optimism” of Future Crunch, a site about global scientific progress that recently published “99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2018.”)
Finally, go deeper into seemingly “bad news” that may be bothering your teen. Whatever your family’s politics, do research together that helps contextualize the issue. Rosling calls this keeping two thoughts in mind simultaneously: “Things can be both bad and [getting] better … That is how we must think about the current state of the world.”
In other words, help your teen see the progress that has already been made within a problem. While an adult activist might find this approach too moderate, a growing teen is likely to feel encouraged by such balance, context and fact-based (or “non-crazy”) reasoning.