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Internet misuse is endemic

by Matt Forde
National Head of Service for NSPCC Scotland

This Tuesday Safer Internet Day will be celebrated world-wide, focusing on how we, as a global community, can “create a better internet together”. Easily said, but how do we do it?

Matt Forde, NSPCC The internet 'offers opportunities to the unscrupulous'

Matt Forde, NSPCC
The internet ‘offers opportunities to the unscrupulous’

The internet is an incredibly powerful tool; offering children and young people a platform for expression, learning and friendship that I simply could not have imagined growing up. But, whilst the World Wide Web has revolutionised our lives and the way in which we communicate, it brings risk and offers opportunities to the unscrupulous.

Internet misuse is endemic; the news is punctuated by stories of underage ‘sexting’, ‘selfie-harm’ images, revenge porn, and teens ‘trolling’ each other and even, astonishingly, themselves. Reports of cyber-bullying and online abuse have increased dramatically, stressing the fundamental need to protect children and young people online and, crucially, to teach them how to protect themselves.

The naiveties and curiosities often associated with youth can blur the boundaries between the virtual world and ‘real life’. Sophisticated technology is omnipresent and many adolescents are almost permanently online; increasing their vulnerability to engaging with inappropriate content, ‘friending’ strangers and taking risks.

Young people need to understand the risks

Young people need to understand the risks

Exposure to inappropriate content deprived of any real context can warp impressions of relationships, distort body image and create undue pressures. Its ready availability undoubtedly creates a false sense of what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour and fuels naive attitudes toward ‘sexting’.

It might be hard to believe that digital ‘relationships’ can become so detached from reality that some young people will put themselves and others at serious emotional or physical risk. Yet this is a reality we must recognise and be prepared to confront.

As a society, it is our collective responsibility to underpin responsible digital citizenship as a way of life. The internet has irrevocably changed the world. Rather than creating a better internet, our mission should be to equip the next generation with the knowledge, vigilance and confidence to embrace the online community, without falling foul of its darker elements.

Reinforcing cyber-safety from an early age should be intuitive; in the same way we instil road safety or ‘stranger danger’. Parents, carers, adults, children, schools, teachers and the internet community all have a role to play in ensuring children and young people can enjoy the internet safely, without fear of mistreatment, bullying or abuse.

Parents' Responsibilities

Parents’ Responsibilities

We need to stress the serious implications of sending photos or comments into the online abyss and emphasise that people may not always be who or what they purport to be, with potentially exploitative motivations. Frank discussions about online pornography or ‘sexting’ can be embarrassing, but we must objectively address and contextualise the content children may encounter; encouraging healthy respectful relationships.

On average, children and young people spend twelve hours online each week, and with access available across everything from mobile phones to gaming, online abuse can happen anywhere, anytime – even in the safety of your own home.

To tackle this issue head on, we must be prepared to confront our own feelings of ignorance and start conversations about who our children’s Facebook friends are, what they say on Twitter, who they Snapchat or what online games they play. I try to take interest in my son’s online social life, but confess I could do more to break down the digital divide between my generation and his. Social media alone is a scary place for me – I’m lost at YOLO – but the prospect of what he could encounter is much more frightening.

Young people might be more au fait with technology, but the dangers come from people – and the dangers are not new. Our strategies and attitudes must mirror the internet’s fluidity if we are to effectively safeguard children and young people online. It’s a World Wide Work-in-progress, but together we can make it a safer space for everyone.

bacplogoBy Stuart Crawford

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has renewed calls that there should be a trained counsellor in every Scottish school. The BACP has over 1,500 members in Scotland (35,000 across the UK), who work across the private, public and voluntary sectors.

Counselling and psychotherapy cover a range of “talking” therapies, and offer an alternative route to tackle some problems that might otherwise be countered by prescription medicines, including antidepressants. These talking therapies can help people with problems as diverse as bereavement, relationships, educational problems as well as anxiety and depression.

Usually delivered in a safe, confidential environment by therapeutically trained practitioners, therapies allow people to talk through sometimes painful, confusing and uncomfortable issues with someone who can help improve things.

This, sadly, also includes young people. In 2004, over 55,000 Scottish children were identified as suffering with mental health problems – roughly 8 per cent of the age group population. One can only wonder at how many more might remain unidentified, or who do not seek or have access to the appropriate help. Current provision throughout the country is patchy at best.

Successive Scottish governments have been aware of this, and have attempted to tackle the problem of mental ill health in young people. In 2005, the then Labour–Lib Dem Scottish executive produced the report The Mental Health of Children and Young People: A Framework for Promotion, Prevention and Care, which called for the provision of confidential, accessible, and non-stigmatising counselling support for all young people by 2015.

Despite this commitment, there has been little movement towards this target during succeeding administrations and there is still no Scottish national strategy for its implementation.

Evidence does show that school-based counselling is associated with improvement in a range of problems that young people might face – for example family issues, eating disorders, bullying and anger management.

Recognising this, both Wales and Northern Ireland have their own national strategies in place for school-based counselling. Both provide ringfenced funding for the provision of these services in every secondary school in their countries. Indeed, such counselling services that have been implemented in Wales have helped thousands of children and young people and are associated with improved attendance and greater confidence in school.

But not yet in Scotland. It may be, of course, that the idea has fallen victim to politics north of the border. The pledge to place a counsellor in every school in Scotland was made in 2005 by the Labour–Lib Dem coalition. The SNP has formed the administration in Holyrood since 2007, and possibly it has slipped down the priority list as the party seeks to implement its own policies.

However, what can possibly be more important for the country, as it movees towards an independence referendum, than the wellbeing of its young people? They are the future of Scotland.

Accordingly, the BACP is once again voicing its recommendation that all Scots children and young people should have access to professional, qualified counselling services at school. There should also be alternative provision within community settings for those who prefer not to access the service at school.

The BACP fully understands the fact that such facilities would have to be authorised and implemented at local authority level, but is keen that the Scottish government should put a fair wind behind it.

That’s not really a lot to ask, is it?

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<em>Picture: Tomhannen</em>

Used by 72 per cent of teenagers Picture: Tomhannen

Today’s teenager is less likely to smoke, drink or take drugs – and, when he or she has sex, is more likely than not to use a condom, according to a report published today.

The latest snapshot of the health, wellbeing and lifestyle of young people in Scotland has some good news for policy makers, with the indication that things are improving on a variety of fronts.

Researchers at Edinburgh University have found that substance misuse has dropped in the last decade, and diets are healthier, too, with young people consuming much less in the way of sweets, crisps and chips – although they still don’t take enough exercise.

Almost a third of 15-year-olds say they have had sexual intercourse, with girls (35 per cent) more likely to report this than boys (27 per cent). Condom use has fallen since 2006 (79 per cent), with 72 per cent saying they had used one during last intercourse, but this is still up slightly on the 1990 rate (70 per cent).

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On the whole, the majority (87 per cent) of the 7,000 young people interviewed for the research were satisfied with their lives, although levels of happiness have decreased in the last five years, as has confidence among girls.

The research, funded by NHS Health Scotland, aims to provide a picture of the health and wellbeing of young people aged 11, 13 and 15. It covers a number of topics including education, lifestyle, behaviour and family circumstances.

This year’s report finds that 11 per cent of 15-year-olds are smoking every day, compared to 16 per cent in 2002. The gender gap which emerged in the late 1990s, where girls were smoking more than boys, appears to have closed.

The number of young people drinking alcohol at least once a week has fallen by over a third. One in ten 13-year-olds and more than a quarter of 15-year-olds drink alcohol at least once a week, with boys most likely to drink beer while girls prefer spirits and alcopops. Cannabis use, both experimental and regular, has halved since 2002, with 19 per cent of 15-year-olds and 4 per cent of 13-year-olds reporting that they had used it.

Although diet appears to have improved, with sweet consumption down by a third and the eating of crisps and chips halving between 2002 and 2010, young people are still not eating enough fruit and vegetables and still don’t take enough exercise. Only 19 per cent of boys and 11 per cent of girls meet the Scottish government’s guidelines on moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, although around half walk to school. In addition, the amount of television watched by young people has fallen.

Around one-fifth (21 per cent) of girls are on a diet, or doing something else to lose weight, compared to 10 per cent of boys. A quarter of boys and two-fifths of girls report that they feel too fat.

A quarter of young people like school “a lot”, with almost two-thirds feeling their classmates are “kind and helpful”, but over one-fifth of 11-year-olds and 54 per cent of 15-year-olds feel pressured by schoolwork.

Fewer than one in ten (9 per cent) young people reported being bullied two or three times at school in the previous two months, and 5 per cent reported having bullied others (7 per cent of boys and 2 per cent of girls).

Almost half of young people have received an injury requiring medical attention in the past 12 months, with boys more likely to be injured than girls. There has been no change in the prevalence of injuries in the last decade.

Around two-thirds of young people live with both parents, with 21 per cent living with one parent. Most children (76 per cent) living with both parents report that both are in employment, as are 74 per cent of single parents. More than half of young people (55 per cent) feel their family is quite or very well off, although this tails off the older the child gets.

Only around half of young people say they feel safe in their local area, although most feel safe most of the time. About one-third of young people think their local area is a really good place to live although, again, this is more likely to be the case among 13-year-olds than 15-year-olds.

“These recent findings are extremely encouraging, with improvements in several areas relating to children’s overall wellbeing,” said Professor Candace Currie, director of the Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit at Edinburgh University.

“Scotland has participated in this international collaborative study for two decades, giving us a unique opportunity to track key areas of health among young people and compare Scotland’s progress to other countries.”

“The Scottish 2010 survey reported here suggests that many things are improving,” added Dr Gerry McCartney, public health consultant and health of the Public Health Observatory Division with NHS Health Scotland.

“Despite these improvements, there remain several worrying findings: only around half of young people feel safe in their local area and only a third of young people eat fruit and vegetables every day.”

The Health Behaviours in School-aged Children (HBSC) Scotland National Report will be published in full later today.

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