Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to hopefully inform, create debate and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child’s voice and how what they tell us informs the work we do.
Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. This week we’re focusing on our annual How safe are our children report? For the past six years, we have compiled and analysed data from across the UK to show the current child protection landscape.
We talked to Holly Bentley who is one of the main authors of the report about why the NSPCC compiles this information each year and why the 2019 report is different to previous years. Holly discusses why the theme of this year’s report - online abuse - was chosen and where we sourced the data from. She talks about some of the expert insights using the report and key findings such as the significant numbers of children that have been exposed to inappropriate content online or online abuse and the big increases in police recorded crime data, particularly in child abuse image offences.
Holly also talks about what resources are available on NSPCC Learning that can help keep children safe online and as always, we talk about how the voice of the child is present throughout the report.
Okay, so Holly, thank you for joining me today to talk about the How safe? report. Could you start by giving us a brief overview of what the report is and why the NSPCC produces it?
Yeah, sure, so traditionally the How safe? report which has been running for six years - this will be it’s seventh - is an overview of child protection data for the whole of the UK, all four nations.
It originally started off with 19 indicators, it was last year up to 20, all of them looking from a slightly different perspective at all the different available data to try and answer the question, how safe are our children? And the reason the NSPCC does it, partly, nobody else was doing it and we thought it was an important thing to do.
It’s basically the evidence base for what’s working, what’s not, what’s going on within the child protection landscape of the UK and by looking at historical data as well, we can identify trends, what’s getting better, what’s getting worse and it really helps focus the mind and reinforces everything that the NSPCC does which is looking at the evidence base and acting accordingly.
I’ve only seen this year’s and last year’s report and they look quite different, have you made many changes this year?
Oh, yes, so this year is really a complete overhaul of the format. We’ve had a great bit of news that the ONS, the Office for National Statistics, has announced that it’s going to put together a compendium this winter looking at child abuse statistics, so basically fulfilling the role that traditionally the How safe? report has fulfilled.
So that’s freed us up really to look at what else perhaps we could look at and an area that’s really of emerging interest and where the data is only just starting to be put in place is online safety and online abuse. So, this year’s report is completely focused on that issue and we’ve looked at ten different indicators that help us to answer how safe our children are online.
And so can you tell us a bit more Holly about why the NSPCC chose to focus on online abuse in particular in this year’s How safe? report?
As I said before, it’s an important emerging issue. It’s clear that technology is playing an increasingly central role in children and young people’s lives and along with that, there’s loads of different opportunities that have appeared but also, there’s potential harms and it does give abusers another way to have contact with and access to children.
The research suggests that online abuse is just as harmful for children as face-to-face abuse. Some research that we commissioned found that children were experiencing flashbacks, depression, anxiety, nightmares and self-harm following online abuse.
There’s also increasing recognition that some sort of action needs to be taken and I feel like this report reinforces that message.
This report’s come at a time when the Government’s just produced its Online Harms White Paper, which really puts centre stage the types of issues that this report is highlighting.
And when you talk about abusers, is it always adults or is there data that there’s an increasing number of peer-on-peer abuse, so children abusing other children via online means?
So, from the data in this report, we can’t talk about an increase but certainly some of the survey data looks at both contact from adults and contact from children and yes, it is something that does happen. Peer online abuse is also an issue.
And you said that the data for online abuse is only just emerging, what data sources do you have available to you?
We have got, for example, crime data. The police a few years ago introduced a flag so any offence that involves an element of online is now flagged as an online crime which means that we can look at what offences are committed against children that involve the internet. It’s not great data yet. Police forces are still getting used to using the flag but it’s something that five years ago didn’t exist, so it’s great that we have that.
Lots of researchers have become aware this is an important issue and there are a wide number of surveys that have been conducted with children asking them about their own experiences of online abuse but there’s also surveys with parents about their awareness of online safety and with teachers about how confident they feel supporting children around this issue. So, there’s loads of survey data out there.
There’s the Internet Watch Foundation who are responsible for identifying URLs that contain child abuse imagery and they produce an annual report every year, so we can look at the number of URLs that are being confirmed as containing child abuse imagery over a number of years now.
There’s also our own helpline and Childline data so what adults are contacting our helpline about that relates to online abuse and also what children are saying in counselling sessions around the issue of online abuse.
I think those are the main sources. There was lots for us to look at and we whittled it down to the stuff that was the most relevant to answer our questions.
I mean, it sounds like of the things you listed there, it’s quite a wide breadth of data and quite a lot for you to sift through and select your indicators from. Were there any particular gaps? Was there anything that you were missing or anything you went, oh, I really wish that I could get information on X?
There’s a few things, firstly, we’ve got lots of survey data which is great, but not much of it is based on a representative sample of the UK population. So, we know what children who have answered that survey have experienced but we can’t necessarily extrapolate those findings to the whole of the UK and this is another place where we’re hoping that the ONS might step in and help us with that information. They’ve announced that they’re scoping to look at whether or not they are able to conduct a prevalence survey, so a survey where they go and ask children, a representative sample of children in England and Wales about their experiences of abuse. If that happens, one of those gaps will be filled which would be great.
The survey data sounds really interesting because it represents the voice of the child. How did you pull that voice of the child and insights from the child through into the report?
One of the main ways was through survey data. It’s the only true way we can tell actually what children are experiencing.
A lot of the other data that we have, so for example, crime statistics, it relies on either children or the adults around them identifying that something is wrong and then deciding to report it.
Most of these surveys were anonymous, so children felt like there would be no repercussions for them disclosing their experiences online. It kind of gives children a safe space to talk about their experiences.
So yeah, that survey data was really invaluable and then of course, we’ve also got our Childline counselling session data. That tells us how many children are choosing to talk to Childline about online safety and online abuse issue which again is very interesting. It’s something that you wouldn’t get from looking at actual reports of experiences of online abuse that go through official agencies.
And how does the Childline data, so things that children are calling up about and want to talk to Childline about, how does that compare with the helpline data and what professionals and the people around them, the adults around them are talking about? Do they match up or do adults and children have different views around online abuse and the risks and issues children may experience online?
There are some differences - mostly demographic differences - and part of that is because of the nature of the services. Childline is mostly used by older children. The average age is 15, so it’s older children that are talking to Childline about online abuse issues. For the helpline, there’s a few more concerns around younger children although again it’s an older age profile normally talking about online abuse.
We haven't really looked in depth at the specific words that are being used by adults and children within this report. It’s more the numbers but I think if you dug into what adults were saying and what children were saying, some of those differences would come out more starkly and there’s a report we published about three years ago that looked at the concerns that both adults and children talked about around online and I think that would be a good starting point for anyone who wants to see a bit more of that difference between the two helplines.
So Holly, it’s great that the voice of the child is so strongly represented in the How safe? report. How about voices of experts and people who have particular insight into the world of online safety?
That was something we were really keen to include. As I said before, it’s really still an emerging area for data and we know that that can’t tell the whole story alone, so we really wanted to bring in the voices of some experts in the field as well. So, scattered throughout the report, there are four expert insights where we’ve invited people with different areas of specialisms to contribute their thoughts around specific issues.
We’ve got one from Sonya Livingstone talking about children’s online rights. There’s some information from Crisp about the role of Artificial Intelligence and identifying child abuse images. We’ve got a piece from within the NSPCC from one of our child safety online representatives, Laura Clarke and she’s talking about the emerging issues around live streaming in a bit more detail because that’s an area where lots more young people are starting to go on live streaming sites and just looking at the kind of experiences they are having whilst they’re live streaming.
And then finally, we’ve got an expert insight from PA Consulting. They’re a consultancy firm that were one of the founding members of the WePROTECT Global Alliance that’s looking at tackling online child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation and they’re presenting some findings from their initial research around different people’s opinions of what more needs to be done and some of their recommendations which includes forming an online harms safety centre - an independent body that kind of oversees online safety in a more centralised and systematic way than currently exists.
And once you’ve pulled all that data together and analysed it and looked into it and got the insight, what were your main conclusions? Are there any main themes or anything surprising that jumped out of the data?
Yes, there were a fair few things that I think are worth remarking on.
From the survey data, we found out that a significant proportion of children and young people have been exposed to inappropriate content online or have experienced online abuse.
For example, 16% of surveyed primary school children have seen content which encouraged people to hurt themselves and 4% of primary school children say that they’ve been sent or shown a naked or semi-naked picture by an adult, so that was quite a surprising statistic.
We’ve also seen big increases in police recorded crime data, so particularly stark are the increases in child abuse image offences. If nothing else, this indicates the police are really being inundated with reports. We’re not sure if it’s because there’s more of these offences happening, if they’re more proactively investigating complaints and or if more people are coming to them with these issues. But they’re really having to deal with an issue that they haven't had to before and a really high numbers of offences.
We’ve also found out that perhaps children and adults aren't as well equipped to deal with online safety issues as we might have assumed, so for example, less than half of 12-to-15-year-olds say that they know how to change their settings to control who can view their social media.
So, I think there’s an assumption that young people know so much more about online safety than their parents and other adults do and that they are on top of all these issues, but actually some of these statistics suggests that there’s more that can be done to support them, more that could be done to help them and certainly, not all parents are feeling confident around this issue either.
So 11% of parents said they didn’t feel that they were personally capable of being able to support their children through all their online safety issues and they said they didn’t know enough to be able to provide that support. So again, there’s need for more education.
And from my perspective, as a parent, I completely agree with that. I mean, I always feel that I’m a bit out of my depth with what my daughter’s looking at online and I think I need to check that she has done her privacy settings properly because I just assume she had done them.
And yes of course, there’s lots that you can get from the NSPCC website that’s aimed at parents around online safety and there’s also on the Learning site, the NSPCC Learning site, lots for professionals. So we’re providing some of that support that should hopefully help people increase their confidence in dealing with these issues and for children on Childline as well, there’ll be information on online safety. And then I think one of the other things that really kind of struck home was how widespread the feelings are that something more needs to be done to improve online safety.
So 89% of the general public, up to 92% of parents think that there should be some sort of statutory regulation to make social networks responsible for keeping children safe on their platforms.
I mean that’s really a resounding note of support for the campaign that the NSPCC is doing at the moment, the Wild West Web Campaign, which is calling for just those sorts of measures. So it’s really nice to have that confirmation that what we are doing is, there’s a really strong need within the public for this kind of action.
That all sounds really interesting and it’s really positive as well that there’s such a strong consensus and there’s so many people who agree that more needs to be done to keep children safe online and it’s something that’s really important that the NSPCC are doing and that it’s evidence based through this report. In terms of just wrapping up now, where can people find a copy of the How safe? report? How can they get their hands on it?
Well it’s available online on the NSPCC Learning website. The short URL is www.nspcc.org.uk/howsafe and “how safe” is all one word, so you can find it online there. That’s probably your best place to go.
Great, and we’ll also have a link to it from this podcast page, so everyone hopefully that’s listening to this podcast will go straight away to download the report and read it.
Thank you very much Holly, thank you for your time and for your expert insight into the How safe? report.
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