“You can’t shut the door on online abuse”
Stewart Simpson attended the Northern Community Justice Authority internet offending conference on February 4. Here, he talks about the uncomfortable truths of online abuse, and what the experts are doing to try and tackle it.
As a practitioner who wasn’t born into the digital generation, understanding the ever-changing landscape of online use and abuse can be daunting to say the least. The Northern CJA internet offending conference offered me some interesting insights into the impact of the internet and other digital technology on young people, with discussions around both those harmed and responsible for harmful behaviours online.
Sarah Pedersen from RGU talked about her research with young people on the impact that social media and internet offending behaviour had on them. One crucial message that Sarah gave was that we often assume that girls are more vulnerable to abuse or being victims of offences. Rather, boys more than girls reported being the victims of their Facebook accounts being hacked or manipulated by others.
An assumption certainly on my part, in the past, has been that young people don’t understand risk when it comes to use of the internet and social media, however, Sarah dispelled this to some extent with the message from young people being that risk simply means something different to them than to adults. Sarah talked about young people being concerned more so with keeping their activity private from parents and carers so to avoid the risk of getting into trouble for what they get up to. Our pre-occupation as adults is often more in relation to who is out there? who could be harmful? and in what way? Young people, according to Sarah, think they know more than they do which is often why getting the message across about adults concerns can prove difficult.
Thinking about the pressures on young people online inspired part of the title to this blog, one comment during the day was “you can’t shut the door on things that happen online!” When I was a teenager, any form of bullying that you might experience happened at school or in the community, but when you went home there was an opportunity for some respite. Now with young people having access to phones/tablets/laptops regularly, there are less opportunities for respite from this type of behaviour.
Sarah Pedersen also pointed out that young people feel they should be “sexy” online because that’s what everyone else does. These pressures are potentially immense, given the instant nature of online contact and of course, what we can’t forget is the simple human nature to be liked by others and pressure associated with this when receiving friend requests from people you don’t know.
To help tackle to negative message about being “sexy” online NSPCC/ChildLine talked about a useful app that young people can use to help alleviate some of the pressure of being asked for information online. ZIPIT offers young people a range of possible comebacks that they can use to avoid what ChildLine describe as “flirty chat”.
Some other interesting points were in relation to those who are charged or convicted of offences. Sarah Nelson from Edinburgh University talked about the use of the Good Lives Model with those who had been involved in sexual offending online. A point made by Sarah around Good Lives model that struck a chord is the lack of focus on trauma, which certainly from my point of view as a Safer Lives trainer (model based on Good Lives) we don’t consider in much detail as part of the training for staff. Maybe we should do more to help practitioners think about the need to consider trauma and how it can be treated when working with young people involved in harmful sexual behaviour.
Thinking more about the Good Lives Model, an overview of Moving Forward Making Changes (MFMC) programme which is currently being disseminated nationally and replaces the Sex Offender Treatment Programme was described by Aberdeenshire Councils programme team. Again, considering how Good Lives is delivered in Scotland another gap is evident which it appears MFMC has covered, in that MFMC can be started in custody and completed in community or visa versa. Comparing that to where we are at just now delivering Safer Lives in Scotland (Adaptation of Good Lives) there is probably a bit of gap with young people unlikely to have a consistent service on every occasion where they are charged with a sexual offence and end up in custody, secure care or residential care. Whilst there are secure units and residential units out there with trained staff, one line of thought is about where this needs to be firmed up to offer consistency of service.
The final thoughts on this event I’ll save for Martin Henry’s (Stop it Now!) input. As ever, Martin spoke passionately about those he works with and left us with some important take away messages. Martin talked about how he finds those involved in non-contact offences online are often most motivated to engage just after they have been arrested. The often catastrophic impact this has on them, their jobs and family means that this is a prime opportunity to begin interventions.
Martin also highlighted the current gap in research for which many of us are keen to address in terms of our anxieties around these types of behaviours and uncertainty in relation to future recidivism. Martin referred to there being some evidence in relation to “viewing to doing” of an upwards trajectory, with some involved in non-contact offences not going on to commit contact offences whilst for others this is a starting point for further harmful behaviour.
Finally, the point that Martin made that I have since talked about when speaking with practitioners’ on at least couple of occasions already, is the potential lack of consideration of the impact of addiction. It is possible that in some cases, the predominant issue is not necessarily an interest in children; rather someone may be experiencing sex addiction (I’m sure we all remember Bill Clinton’s predicament!) meaning they may download large amounts of pornographic material which may sometimes involve children or young people. Being mindful of this point when working with those who have been charged with internet offences, this is something we need to check out carefully when thinking about whether our treatment/intervention goals are the right ones.
More information will be available on facts and figures from this conference will be available in a subsequent Information Sheet.
About our blogger
Previous to joining CYCJ, Stewart Simpson was a Youth Justice practitioner in the Scottish Borders. Read more.