Belfast Telegraph

Calls to ChildLine are up 88% in just one year because of spike in online bullying

Day three of our exclusive series on the NSPCC's work looks at internet abuse

By Victoria O'Hara

The number of calls for help about online bullying received by NSPCC counsellors in Northern Ireland jumped by 88% in just one year.

The charity said the significant rise in calls was evidence of the serious risks the internet poses for thousands of children, a risk which must be addressed.

The NSPCC's ChildLine has warned that the internet opens up "whole new avenues of abuse".

The charity added that the wider dangers of the internet, including the availability of legal adult pornography online, must also be tackled.

The NSPCC said the impact on children's natural sexual development due to the prevalence of child abuse images and online bullying should not be underestimated.

In 2012, 91% of all five to 15-year-olds across the UK used the internet. And new figures released to the Belfast Telegraph show that calls to Childline in Northern Ireland about online bullying jumped by 88% in 2012-13 compared to the year before.

NSPCC's Head of Child Safety Online, Claire Lilley – originally from Jordanstown, Co Antrim but now based in London – said it is time the problem was "got to grips with".

"There are areas of concern that we're all aware of, but which are becoming increasingly problematic," she said. "The easy availability of legal adult pornography online – and the impact this is having on children's natural sexual development, the prevalence of child abuse images, and, of course, online bullying, are all high on the NSPCC's agenda.

"The prevalence of bullying, indecent imagery and risky behaviour demonstrates very clearly that our young people are not applying the same standards to the internet as they apply to 'real life'."

One teenager who contacted the charity said: "I think things just get out of hand – cause you can't see my face I'll say what I like." Ms Lilley added: "The ability to hide behind an online persona can be seen as a licence to behave in ways that would shock most parents."

The charity said it is vital sex education lessons "get with the programme" in terms of what young people are encountering online.

"Very often they've seen a wealth of inappropriate, unrealistic and sometimes downright harmful content, which we're failing to challenge in any meaningful way," Ms Lilley said.

"We need to help them frame what they're encountering, in terms of pornography, peer pressure and relationships, so they achieve a view of what is genuinely 'normal' and appropriate.

"There needs to be a real understanding of the fact that not everyone is who they say they are – and the implications of that – as well as engraining respect for one another in terms of online behaviour."

As reported this week by the Belfast Telegraph during a series looking behind the scenes of the NSPCC's work here over the last year, ChildLine has received an influx of calls regarding self-harm and online bullying between 2012 and 2013.

The charity said there are many reasons for increases in contacts about certain issues after awareness campaigns such as the recent Safer Internet Day. However, technology has been helpful in counselling children at the charity.

For the first time the Northern Ireland bases in Belfast and Foyle carried out more counselling online (65%) compared with the phone (35%).

Elaine Chalmers, ChildLine area manager for Northern Ireland, said: "Last year, for the first time ever, we received more contacts via online channels than by telephone, showing a shift in the way young people choose to communicate.

"We know that some young people find it easier to type than to talk about difficult issues such as suicide and self-harm."

Charity assists children at hundreds of court appearances

Almost 800 children and young people who had to enter Northern Ireland courtrooms were supported by an NSPCC project in the last year.

The charity's Young Witness Service helped 776 young victims and child witnesses in criminal trials in 2012-13 – many of which are sexual abuse cases.

Past research has shown that issues such as time delays and being subjected to "aggressive" cross-examination by barristers during a criminal trial have led to anxiety and stress for the majority of young witnesses.

Janique Burden, manager of the NSPCC's Young Witness Service, said: "There is a shocking over-representation of children within the criminal justice system as victims of crime.

"In 2012-13, sexual offences against children under 18 accounted for 55% of all sexual crime reported in Northern Ireland.

"However, only 14% of these reported offences had resulted in a formal sanction by September 2013."

Figures also show that 13% of all physically violent offences were committed against children but only 27% of these offences had an outcome recorded by September 2013.

Ms Burden added: "While the majority of victims are older children, children under the age of 10 accounted for 36% of sexual crime against children and 17% of offences against the person."

Funded by the Department of Justice, the Young Witness Service is aimed at improving young people's experience of the judicial process.

Ms Burden said there was a history of abusers prevailing, in part because children were not themselves listened to or believed.

"Having found the courage to report the crime, once the young person knows that a volunteer is there, just for them, to support them through the whole process, they often develop in confidence and do the bravest thing they will ever have been asked to do."

CASE STUDY: 'Volunteers helped me cope with legal maze'

Three years after she was indecently assaulted, 17-year-old Naomi*, who received support from the NSPCC's Young Witness Service, says she is able to look back and think: "I was right, I did it, and I got justice."

"I'm not the sort of person not to speak out. Immediately after it happened I told my teachers straight away, and the vice principal contacted the police who came out that day. My mum always says to us, even if we can't talk to her or my dad that we should talk to a teacher, your nanny – just talk to someone.

"When the police first told me that my case was going to court I didn't know anything about the Young Witness Service. Now I can't comprehend how you could put a child in a court setting without them. My case had been postponed so many times, and each time my Young Witness Service worker was in touch. It was really helpful to have someone there, telling you how the court works, and breaking down the legal jargon.

"He even brought me to the courtroom and said 'the judge will be there, the barristers will be there, the jury will be there', and explained the videolink.

"It's definitely a bit scary being cross-examined. I found the defence barrister quite aggressive and patronising, and he kept saying 'could I suggest', which felt like mind tricks – you have to listen really attentively. The preparation though really set me up for what I could expect.

"The Young Witness Service is there with you throughout the whole thing.

"On the first day we just sat in the Young Witness room all day long, playing games and chatting while we waited to be called.

"Then another day, when I was leaving the video link room, the defendant was walking behind me. My Young Witness volunteer was great – she stepped directly behind me so she was in between me and him.

"Even when the trial finished, they kept in contact to check I was okay.

"I would urge anyone who isn't sure, to go for it. If you don't, you'll always wonder what you could have changed."

*Names are changed to protect identity

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