Schools and media literacy are key to the social well-being of refugee adolescents
For a refugee teenager starting a new life in Europe, going to school and using digital media is an important part of navigating an unfamiliar society. But appropriate interventions at school and online could help them feel more comfortable in a new country.
A quarter of migrants and refugees who entered Europe last year were children, while nearly 15,000 refugee children have been resettled here, mostly to the UK, France and Sweden.
Helping these teens feel socially supported is essential to their well-being and creating a stable future, says Dr. An Verelst, a clinical psychologist at Ghent University in Belgium.
“If your emotional well-being is better, then you are better able to study, succeed in school, find a job and start a family,” she said.
Dr. Verelst coordinates a project called RefugeesWellSchool, which studies five types of interventions aimed at fostering social support and integration. It runs the programs at schools in four Nordic countries, Belgium and the UK and will work with a mix of around 3,000 newcomers, mostly refugees and migrants, but also children born in the EU.
One intervention is teacher-led discussion groups, where refugee and non-migrant children discuss topics such as friendship, love, discrimination and future hopes, as well as their personal experiences. They also share experiences through non-verbal modes such as drawing. Another intervention is drama therapy, where newcomer children work with trained actors and musicians to reconstruct their stories and address themes such as exclusion.
The teachers are strongly involved. As well as facilitating numerous sessions, an initiative raises awareness among teachers of how migration experiences can impact the well-being of children and trains them to foster cross-cultural empathy.
Interventions began in Denmark and the UK in January, with more to follow over the next school year. The goal is to determine what works best in which school scenarios.
Globally, there is still little evidence on how different programs work, says Dr. Verelst, with studies often relying on data from individuals rather than larger groups.
Ilse Derluyn, professor of social work and refugee studies at Ghent University who leads the project, said: “The idea is to give the interventions to all minors, whether or not they have serious emotional issues. We want to focus on the broader scope, and more on social relationships and support.”
According to Dr. Verelst, for children who have experienced trauma, social support is a buffer against the development of mental health problems, while stigma can exacerbate these problems. Building social relationships between newcomers and the existing community is key when it comes to opening the doors to integration, she says.
“It takes a community and a society to help nurture, integrate and welcome young migrants and refugees,” said Dr Verelst.
Although this is at the start of the project, initial feedback on the interventions indicates that the refugee adolescents feel less isolated and that the children are improving their understanding of each other.
“Often children feel like they come from very different backgrounds, but in reality they find ‘we are more alike than we thought’ and the social connections really improve,” said Dr. Verelst. When it comes to the teacher-student relationship, drama therapy also offers a language for sharing difficult stories or emotions, she says.
The project aims to create a set of sharpened interventions and share its findings with teachers, the general public and policy makers. “If these interventions can be proven to work, a larger group of migrant children may benefit,” said Professor Derluyn.
For young refugees, the challenge of social integration is also played out online. Familiarizing yourself with local media is often overlooked when it comes to helping teenage refugees adjust to a new life. Being able to understand media content and technology – or what is known as media literacy – is crucial, according to Dr Annamária Neag, a media literacy researcher at Bournemouth University in the UK.
This is particularly difficult for unaccompanied minors – who make up more than 40% of refugee children who entered Europe in 2018 – who are vulnerable to exploitation and other harm, says Dr Neag. Media literacy can help them make informed decisions to improve their well-being and safety, she says.
For a project she leads called MedLitRefYouth, Dr. Neag has spent the past two years studying media literacy among refugees aged 14 to 19 in Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK, with a view to developing educational material for teachers and youth workers.
She interviewed children from countries like Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Iran to find out how they use digital technologies and social media. This involved discussing their understanding of themes such as fake news and cyberbullying. Interviews often took place in the shelters or apartments where they lived.
“I was able to see what kind of technology they had access to at home and how they were using it,” Dr. Neag said.
Children have vastly different levels of literacy, education and familiarity with technology, which means their needs and goals differ, according to Dr. Neag.
For example, among children unable to read and write, it became apparent that they were using digital media in very visual ways. “They don’t live in a text-based world,” said Dr Richard Berger, a media and social science researcher at Bournemouth University who is also working on the project. “YouTube is their Google: they use it as a search engine.”
Those who find it hardest to use digital technologies are those who are using them for the first time, says Dr. Neag. Other challenges include not questioning the veracity of content on social media, reliance on social media and using platforms for entertainment rather than education, she says, issues that are common. in many other people today.
Dr Neag is currently developing an app with a colleague at Bournemouth University containing advice on the use of social media and topics such as fake news. Scheduled to be ready in August, it is designed for youth workers, mentors and tutors. It will include features such as other media literacy resources available and a list of online mentor groups for users to connect and discuss approaches.
“I would be happy if this app was used as a first step to help unaccompanied refugee children to be more critical of the media and civically active online, and to better understand how advertisements work or the distribution of fake news,” Dr. Neag said.
Ultimately, improving media literacy can help empower children, she says. “Being civically active, raising your voice and telling your own stories is really important.”
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Provided by Horizon: the European magazine for research and innovation
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