Podcast: how Childline has been supporting children during COVID-19

Last updated: 27 Jul 2020 Topics: Podcast Type: Podcast
Overview

Hear from our Childline team about children’s use of the service during the coronavirus pandemic

Every young person’s experience of the pandemic and lockdown has been different. Some have been confronted with new challenges during this period and are finding new ways to cope. Others may have limited contact with a trusted adult or someone with a safeguarding responsibility who they can turn to for support.

We invited Kirsty Donnelly and Robert Burns who both work for Childline to talk to us about what children and young people have been telling them in counselling sessions and online message boards. You’ll hear about:

  • children’s thoughts and worries over the last couple of months
  • a change in the way children and young people have been contacting Childline
  • how Childline has adapted and adjusted their online and counselling services and dealt with new issues they haven’t had to consider or tackle before
  • how children have been supporting each other through Childline’s online communities
  • the child protection issues that may emerge as we transition back to the ‘new normal’.


About the Childline team

Robert Burns started as a volunteer counsellor at Childline to complement his work as a secondary school teacher. He is now a supervisor and looks at how children and young people are using Childline.

Kirsty Donnelly is a Community Manager at Childline and a part of the Online Services team. She is responsible for various digital channels and is involved in maintaining the safeguarding policies and procedures for user-generated content on these platforms, moderating this content and liaising with external agencies when required.​

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Related resources

> View our Childline briefing for an insight into issues raised in counselling sessions between January and April 2020

> Read about online safety during coronavirus

> See all our resources for safeguarding during the pandemic

> Visit and share the Childline website with children and young people you work with

Transcript

Podcast transcript

Introduction:
Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to 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.

Ali:
Hi and welcome to the latest NPSCC Learning podcast. We recently ran a series that focused on how practitioners in the fields of education, social care and health have adapted their services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But how has the pandemic and those first few months of lockdown affected children and young people?

I had a chat with Kirsty Donnelly and Robert Burns who both work for Childline. We talked about what children and young people have been telling Childline about their worries and concerns. We discuss the support children and young people have been giving each other and how the way in which they’ve been contacting Childline has changed over time. I also asked Kirsty and Robert what they think the child protection issues are going to be as we transition back to the ‘new normal’.

Robert and Kirsty, since March we know that a lot of children and young people have been in lockdown and despite restrictions gradually lifting, many children and young people won't be going to school or they won't be able to see their friends and family face-to-face. So can you give us a bit of an idea about what children and young people have been telling Childline about their worries and concerns over this time?

Robert:
I can talk about the young people I've heard in our counselling room. I've actually been surprised about how well they've been doing. The difficulty about not seeing friends has been much to the fore. But I thought it would be much harder for young people than it turns out to have been. For some, it's been a time where they're being forced to spend too much really time in situations that they really don't choose. And it's difficult - sometimes dangerous. The word that springs to mind always when I'm thinking about the young people using our helpline is resilience and how capable young people are which I think a lot of adults forget. And I think our job really has been to tap into that resilience and that capability and help them see that that's what they are - resilient and capable.

Ali:
Absolutely.

Robert:
In the early days of the lockdown, young people were worried about the virus. There were a lot of questions about the virus. And we found ourselves having to become kind of, on-the-hoof experts. And most of the time, I directed our counsellors to the website content because it was great about explaining the virus and all the difficulties in a child-friendly way.

In school there's been a big deal for young people because we've had to learn about school. Because every young person who contacts us has had a different experience of schooling. Some are at school. Some are receiving remote schooling. Some part-time remote schooling. Some part-time at school, part-time remote. And it's just been really complicated because we don't have a sense of really what each young person's world is like. You know, you make assumptions when you talk to a young person about the schooling, about their family. Assumptions are usually wrong to be fair. But this, we really had to rely on the young people to tell us what their lives are like.

Ali:
That's interesting. So have they helped inform some of the information that you've maybe been passing on to other children?

Robert:
We are learning as much about young people as ever we did and more. Simply because they are finding new ways to cope that we as adults haven't thought about. They are finding new problems in their lives that we haven't thought about.

Kirsty:
And I think that's very much mirrored in our online content as well - what young people are talking to us about online. Young people can submit both private and public content to us online. And it really does matter what Robert was saying there. Initially it was understandably so, being scared of the virus, asking just questions, “what is it?”, “what does it mean?”, “will I get it?”, “can I go to the shop?”. You know, “is it okay for me as a child to walk into a shop and buy chocolate?”. Which is a really basic question but a really genuine one when there is so much information out there that’s confusing. And I had other young people, similar to us as adults in that we read in the news, both refuting “it's not a virus”, “it's nothing to worry about” and others really, “this is hugely concerning”, “this is going to be our lives forever more”. That's now completely changed and we actually rarely see a young person online via our channels talking about the virus itself.

Very similar to what Robert said about school, absolutely number one what young people are talking to us about online and it's everything. It was the pressures of school work from home - trying to manage that - attending classes online. We make those assumptions that young people want to be online, that they are so familiar with it, but we had our young people talking to us about, “I don't want to be on Zoom. I don't want it recorded. I don't want to be on camera talking to people”. You're also genuinely talking about those concerns about “what's going to happen with my exams. What's going to happen with my grades? What will that be like in the future? How will that affect my future plans?”. Young people are also talking about just how to keep motivated whilst you're at home studying. And I think we as adults have found that as well. How do you get that balance of working from home? So it's the same from young people. How are they managing their studying whilst just being in their normal home environment, sometimes in their bedrooms?

Some are definitely relieved at not attending school. They've felt more stress-free. They didn't have to deal with the social anxiety, just leaving the house can bring. Bullying is maybe a lessening for them. And then it was also talking about their friends. What is that like? It's not the same as meeting them in person, even though you can see them on FaceTime, etc. Not being able to see people they're maybe in a relationship with, not being able to pursue people they wanted to be in a relationship. And it's those things that I think that we could generally miss out on, just all those natural conversations that can happen for young people face-to-face that just weren't happening in the same way. But they still had the same thoughts and feelings and it was how to deal with them. And that's a big thing as well as just talking about their moods, their changing moods and the feelings that young people are experiencing haven't necessarily changed. They're just maybe exacerbated in terms of that whole hopelessness or “I'm just with the people I live with all day, every day” and that's exacerbating those tensions. And then obviously, any issues that have been existing in terms of abuse before that as well.

Ali:
Sure.

Kirsty:
Some people are talking about things like delayed assessments for diagnoses of mental health illnesses and that's a big thing as well. So if you've mustered up the courage to talk to someone or approach someone for help, when you’ve finally got to that point on the waiting list to then have that delayed, it's a massive, massive impact as well.

Robert:
The lack of physical, tangible support from a CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) worker having to do it remotely has been tricky for so many young people. But also for young people at school, I don't know from your experience, Kirsty, is the transition periods have been especially difficult for young people, those moving into secondary school. Those moving perhaps to university or college because they've had a whole part of their life chopped out.

Kirsty:
Yeah. And I think that goes back to what you were saying as well, it's so different for so many young people in the four nations. But even within the same nation, one person's experience is very different. Some schools have been able to have that transition, that visit to the other school. And others simply haven't, albeit with social distancing and things like that involved. But it's just different from one young person to the next. So that is the value, certainly with our content on our public message boards, where young people can share those experiences and really understand each other as well as just talk about them because it is so different for each individual young person.

Ali:
It sounds like you are being asked some really, really huge questions. Kirsty, you were saying that young people are saying “how is this going to affect my life?”. I mean, that's massive, isn't it? And Robert, you were saying to me, questions and asks were coming up from children and young people that you haven't had to consider or tackle before which is massive. So how has this impacted the Childline service? How have you guys had to adjust and adapt to this?

Robert:
With difficulty I’d say. That's a really difficult question because each young person is different. Each young person deserves their own bespoke service. But our counsellors are also having to deal with changes in their lives and changes in their children's, their grandchildren's lives. Like I said before, they make assumptions and sometimes what we've had to do is unlearn so much and don't make assumptions about young people. For example, in the early days of the lockdown, I was guilty of making the assumption each person was home. So my assessment of what to do with them, how to deal with them, would be based on that. But so many young people were using the lockdown in their own way to try and keep themselves safe. So that might mean removing themselves from the family home when perhaps they shouldn't have. I think it's about unlearning and stopping yourself making assumptions is what we've had to do.

Ali:
Right. Has that been tricky?

Robert:
It's been very tricky. One of the assumptions that you can make about most young people is that, if they're at school and attending school, there are adults with a safeguarding responsibility who will see them. And part of whose job is to notice changes in behaviour and to notice when things are going wrong. And when young people weren't attending school, that's gone.

Ali:
Exactly.

Robert:
So there isn't someone with an external responsibility seeing them at all. Which means that we can't think that someone the next day would see this young person or they’d be able to knock on the door or talk to a teacher. It's all gone. So some routes for safeguarding were effectively removed for young people.

Ali:
And those routes, do you think then that had an impact on Childline services because more children were using the service?

Robert:
It felt like that. I couldn't speak for numbers. I don't have those. But it felt like the responsibility shifted back towards the young person and then shared with us. It felt like a greater responsibility.

Ali:
I guess another impact that lockdown has had is that it's giving children and young people less privacy. Do you think that that's had an impact on the way they've been contacting Childline?

Robert:
For me, it feels like that. A long time ago when I first started at Childline, every call that came into us was from either a home phone or from a phone box. So it was a long time ago. And you could make assumptions then about privacy, that young people have had to seek the privacy to make the phone call otherwise they'd be overheard. Now it's different. But still, if you're locked in the house with people, they're likely to hear your phone calls. So I get the sense that there's been a drift towards contacting us, for example, by Childline email much more because you can dash off an email, say what you need to say and nobody's looking over your shoulder because you're only spending a couple of minutes. A chat can take up to an hour or a phone call could take quite a long time and you can be overheard. So I think there seems to be a greater use of the Childline email and I suppose Kirsty might notice a difference on the message boards.

Ali:
Yeah, I was going to say bring Kirsty in and just say what's your sense Kirsty about the online communities that you've been seeing? Do you think there's been more activity there?

Kirsty:
There most definitely has been. Since lockdown, we've seen double and then above double the amount of young people posting on the message boards, for example. And that is, as I said earlier, a public forum where young people can post about anything that they want to talk to other young people about. And that content is just increasing week on week. We were talking about previous reporting figures on average about three thousand posts a month. The other week we had sixteen hundred posts. That's the amount of young people who are using it and that's just the message boards because they can also talk to us in other ways as well online.

Young people in our social media channels as well - just to mirror what Robert has said - it may be messages. We can't give counselling on social media and we direct to other help and content we have on the site. But a lot of young people are saying, “can I not just talk on here?”. And I would very much attribute that to I'm on my phone. I can be on Instagram for example and I can fire off a message and if anyone were to see me, that's 'normal behaviour'. That's not me on Childline. I'm just on Instagram.

And it's similar to other online channels. You can be on our website. You can be logged into your account talking to other young people on the message boards, writing an entry in your mood journal, creating an image that's you online. Again ‘normal behaviour’ and you can quickly shut that down. You can leave the page and go to a Google home page if anyone were to walk in or ask what you're doing. I do think a lot of young people are obviously just at home, not being able to go out in the same way that they would have done previously. So it's just that eternal access to online and therefore they can access our channels online much more frequently.

Robert:
Could I flip that about privacy into something else?

Ali:
Yes of course.

Robert:
Because what I've noticed in the past eight or nine weeks is the huge number of adults using our service. Sometimes because it's the number they know and they're concerned about a child. But also, adults who want to put their child onto us.

Ali:
Really?

Robert:
Huge number. I was on shift yesterday. I think there were three who wanted us to talk to their child. We're very careful about that. We want to make sure the child wants to talk to us and can have the privacy if needed. But so many adults know that Childline is a place their child can turn to. And they sometimes are doing the prep work for the young person by contacting us, getting through the answering message when they ring. Talking to the counsellor and introducing their child - it's astonishing. It has always happened once in a blue moon. Kirsty will remember when Kirsty was a Childline counsellor. That did happen didn’t it?

Kirsty:
Oh definitely, I'm just thinking back but it was so infrequently that you'd - forgive me for forgetting - forget that happened.

Robert:
It's a really good thing. We like it. But it's a change.

Ali:
Gosh, I mean, I've never heard of it. It never even entered my head actually. A lot of us were children when Childline started, we do remember that number. But it's quite interesting to see that parents are now interacting in order to get their children to kind of open up and talk.

Robert:
Yes. And they can't do that online. They would need an account. I have actually seen that happen too, where an adult creates the account, talks to the counsellor on chat and introduces the child. Which is very weird because we've no voice clues telling you it's an adult. But I've seen that twice.

But I also think there's maybe something about young people aren't always comfortable with speaking on the phone. We hear from a lot of young people online who don't want to speak on the phone. They don't like their voice being heard. They're scared in a sense of that contact. So I think there may be something in that too that these adults are introducing their young people to a way of getting support on the phone.

Ali:
Sure. And sometimes it's easier to write something down than actually say it. So it's great that we've got those, like we say, those avenues that children and young people can choose that is the easiest and most comfortable way for them to say, I need to talk to someone about something. I guess talking about that, about supporting children and young people, can we talk about how this kind of peer to peer support and how children and young people have been possibly supporting each other? Maybe you've seen this more over the online stuff Kirsty, but have we seen a surge in children and young people supporting each other on the message boards about this whole situation about COVID and lockdown and everything that comes with it?

Kirsty:
Yeah, most definitely. So our peer support on the message boards has been in existence for many, many years now. And it's always been such a supportive community and that has just increased more and more. Young people have been posting about all the traditional issues that we would normally post about but also about lockdown and coronavirus. And we've seen young people just creating threads and talking about, “we’re feeling lonely and we figured that other people would feel the same”, correctly so.

They've just been posting a thread to say this is just a place to support each other. Just let's talk. How are you? What are your tips for coping with boredom, stress, schoolwork, all those types of things. They can reply for a longer time as well because one of the changes we've made is we've extended our moderation hours. So traditionally it would finish at 9:00 p.m. and we've extended those to half eleven, meaning that people can submit their content for longer periods, giving each other much more peer support.

Again in the evenings, when they're maybe just in their room, nobody's interrupted them, so they've got time to come on, post, read a reply, reply back to that person. So what I've definitely seen is, as well as this incredible support young people have always given each other, it's just more so and it's more heartfelt. People genuinely acknowledging each other: “Oh, my goodness, thank you for saying that”, “so lovely to hear from you again”, “I love talking to people on here”, “thank you so much for your reply, it really helped”.

We've also seen that translate into our other content. Young people have maybe posted in their journals to see I got a reply in the message boards and it made me feel so good to help someone else. It's not always looking about help for themselves, it's that genuine warm feeling that they get from helping another young person. And just having those conversations. It's all moderated, so nothing goes live without being checked. It's almost like an instant conversation with that delay. Whereas traditionally because the traditional times, everybody's walking to school and you know home life and everything, you had those peak times that you would expect in the morning when school finished. Whereas young people can talk to each other throughout the day and they are and they continue to do so when those numbers are talked about. But it's that, “thank you, I would love to be your friend. Let's all share our experiences, let's talk about this. What's this been like for you? I haven't heard from you for a couple of days, how are you doing?”, that type of thing and that's seen each and every day.

Ali:
And in the absence of the more traditional peer to peer route, so chatting to friends at school or any clubs that you might go to. It's great for children and young people to have that. So that's really good to hear. The peer to peer support that you've been seeing online, has some of that helped inform what you're saying back to young people? Because they're telling you what they're doing, what they're feeling, giving each other advice. Has that in any way helped you guys?

Kirsty:
Absolutely. It's informing everything that we do as an organisation as well. It's feeding into the wider NSPCC approaches, feeding into what Childline can say. And it's also feeding into that content that we create on the website that Robert was referring to. Young people's experiences, what they're telling us, things that we maybe didn't know about school because we are working with the official advice but at a local level, it can be different.

We have a part of the website called the Calm Zone that's about dealing with stress and anxiety and different things to try - exercises, breathing exercises - that type of thing, writing, creating things. What young people have been talking to us about on the message boards has very much influenced that content as well, in terms of the things that they can do that work for them, simple things that they can do where they live that doesn't require any purchases or going somewhere or being physically somewhere. They can just sit wherever they are in the place that they live and do it and that's very much from young people themselves. They often have the best ideas because it's what works for them and sharing that with other young people and that allows us to share that with a wider group of young people and other adults as well because people in other organisations use that content as well to help with the young people they work with. So it's much wider benefits as well and that all comes from young people themselves.

Robert:
Calm Zone has been a great boon to our counsellors too as a place to signpost these young people to. The Calm Zone has really won us over. Everyone really loves the Calm Zone. And young people come and tell us they've been using the Calm Zone which is great. We don't have to ask. We don't have to signpost. They tell us where they've been and how it's worked for them. It's been a great thing.

Ali:
Brilliant. That's really good to hear.

Kirsty:
And that’s very much measured overall because in one week we had almost 10,000 total page views of the Calm Zone. It's huge.

Ali:
Phenomenal.

Kirsty:
It really shows what people are looking for and that for some other adults, as I said as well, who are looking for things for their young people to have to help them as well.

Ali:
Brilliant. Just to end the conversation but actually to end on a big question chaps, so this might feel a bit overwhelming this one. What do you think the child protection issues might be going forward as we transition back to what we're kind of terming this 'new normal'?

Kirsty:
I think one of the big things is probably going to be the increase of online activity from young people. We've talked about that. And it's been hugely beneficial for them in terms of accessing Childline online. But the more time people spend online and the changing online behaviours and maybe new habits that they've become involved in and maybe delved a bit further online than we would have had done before, could come with an increased risk with people they were in contact with. That might in the future turn into something much riskier that maybe would only come to the surface when we're back to some kind of normality.

I think as well, the child protection issues are still being talked about because young people as we know are still contacting Childline. But for those young people who maybe aren't contacting Childline, who maybe talk to someone like a trusted adult in their life, such as a teacher, if they haven't had that access to someone, have they maybe become more used to keeping things to themselves again? So that when we are back to that normal, is it then going to be harder for them again to open up because they've been so used to keeping things to themselves? So that in the longer term could be a child protection issue as well.

Ali:
Exactly.

Robert:
We have noticed that people are talking to us again in the past few weeks in a way that I haven't noticed for a year or two about other sites where adults have access to these young people. And it's been a bit of a worry that that's cropped up again. And it does seem they have more exposure to that. They're online more. There was a spike a couple of years ago of us having to talk to young people about signposting them perhaps to ThinkUKnow so that they can get help in reporting images and so on online. And in the past couple of weeks, that's happened again. Lots more stuff about behaviour online which isn't really healthy and the behaviour of others which is perhaps abusive.

Ali:
Yes.

Kirsty:
Something that starts off as being helpful and innocent could potentially have led to something more sinister. Not immediately, but you may be talking to someone online via a different app and building that conversation up over time before their true intent I guess becomes apparent.

Ali:
Even if like you say we do return back to relative normality, the impact of this is going to be ongoing.

Kirsty:
Yeah, absolutely. I think that's longer term. Not necessarily safeguarding or child protection but just that mental health impact as well on everyone and what’s that going be like for young people. And even if we do go back to normal school September time, with all the changes that that will bring as well, it doesn't mean that somebody is going into school back in their first day and is talking to the school guidance teacher or a pastoral carer about everything that they've been through because they've got new changes to adapt to as well. So it could be further along the line before you know everything that young people have been upset about and what they're talking about.

Ali:
Absolutely.

Robert:
And for those young people who have some kind of social anxiety, the fear of going out has become a thing too. So this change back to and I think we'd be wrong to call it normal because I think we're all going to have to learn how we live in the future and for young people, that's especially difficult because there are no role models. It's not been done before. So they're going to have to reintroduce themselves to a group of friends perhaps when they're not as comfortable as we would like to think they are.

Ali:
Well the thing that is consistent for those young people is Childline and it's great that you guys are going to be there. And that we're all, as an organisation, we're all preparing as much as we can for that. But we know that we'll be there. And I think children and young people will know that we're going to be there. And interestingly after this call, adults as well. Kirsty and Robert, thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it. It's been so interesting, eye opening and enlightening. I really appreciate it. Thanks both.

(Outro)

"Thank you for listening to this NSPCC Learning Podcast. If you're looking for more safeguarding and child protection training, information or resources, please visit our website for professionals at nspcc.org.uk/learning."