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How Children and Adolescents Understand the Issue of Refugees

The collaborative study by the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) and the Media Authority of North Rhine Westphalia (LfM) represents the first comprehensive series of studies on the subject of adolescents and refugees. As part of this, in March (n= 741) and September (n= 1,448) 2016 a representative sample of 6 to 19 year-olds were asked about their knowledge and attitudes towards refugees, and relations between these and their media usage were identified. In the qualitative part, 147 6 to 11 year-olds were interviewed in questionnaire-supported interviews with both open and standardised questions and creative components, and 166 12 to 18 year-olds filled in a corresponding age-appropriate questionnaire.    

77% think it is good that Germany is accepting refugees

Of children and adolescents who responded in 2016, the majority had a particularly positive emotional attitude towards refugees. The number did fall from 84% in March to 77% in September, but at both times a clear majority thought it was either “good” or even “very good” that Germany is accepting refugees. Where the respondents already actually knew a refugee, there were significantly more cases of this more positive attitude. 

Only two out of five adolescents have had any actual contact with refugees

Thus far, on average, only two in five, or – among primary school children – three in ten, children have spoken to a refugee in person or have been involved in any joint activities with a refugee. Of the respondents, the children in Thuringia and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern barely had any contact with refugees. This means that for the majority of adolescents, their knowledge of and ideas about refugees are mainly based on media discourses. When, in the qualitative interviews, the children talk about what they know about the refugee issue, they mostly focus on war, destruction, and scenarios involving people fleeing, for example, overcrowded boats. These are images adolescents are familiar with from the media. They are not, however, aware of many aspects of their refugee peers’ direct experience of the violence1

The number of refugees who have come to Germany is often significantly overestimated

Many children and adolescents know the basics: they know that most of the refugees fled from Syria or Middle Eastern countries in 2015. In other areas, however, they have internalised the wrong facts. Many respondents significantly overestimate the number of refugees who have come to Germany; in fact, this tendency to overestimate increased over the course of 2016. In September 2016 just under a third of 17 to 19 year-olds overestimated the number; in March it was only a fifth. In the east, particularly in Saxony, significantly more people overestimate the number: only 16% of the respondents know the right answer.   

Fear of terrorist attacks by refugees has increased among adolescents

Overall, only a small proportion of children and adolescents have any fears concerning refugees. This did not change significantly over the course of 2016, for example as regards the fear of having less themselves because there are more refugees in Germany, or the fear that parents might lose their jobs because of refugees. The most significant increase was in the fear of terrorist attacks by refugees. In March, 30% of children and adolescents were afraid of this; in September it was nearly four in ten (43%). However, it is not the children who are afraid that refugees may increase the danger of terror attacks in Germany; it is the adolescents who are afraid of this, and specifically the disproportionately high number of these who have never had any contact with refugees.      

Knowledge about refugees predominantly comes from television

Children’s and adolescents‘ knowledge of refugees mainly comes from the media, with television being by far the most common source of information, followed by newspapers, the internet, and radio. The adolescents who gave the best answers to the knowledge questions were those who got their information from Tagesschau (Daily News), logo! (children’s news programme) or heute (Daily News). The children whose knowledge comes from public-service programmes have significantly fewer fears about living alongside refugees in future.   

When media reportage becomes problematic

It is primarily lurid media reportage which frightens children and adolescents, for the spectacular images and the emotional tone take precedence over the facts of the report in their reception of it. In particular, they remember – on a long-term basis – reports about violent acts committed by refugees or about how so many of them are terrorists. The children and adolescents came into contact with anti-foreigner rumours – sometimes with an explicitly criminal background – via social networks such as Facebook. They are, on the whole, unable to distinguish these from serious reportage.  

The results of the study series are published in TelevIZIon 30/2017/E “Refugees, Integration, and the Media“

1 As part of the study, the IZI and the LfM also conducted 40 interviews with refugee children and adolescents. They were asked about their image of Germany, their experiences and wishes.