Understanding online help seeking of young people via the Childline moderated online peer-peer message boards

Vanessa Bennett

Emerging Minds collaborative cross sector placement with the NSPCC and Neuroscience, Ethics and Society (NEUROSEC Group), Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford

Led by Vanessa Bennett with the NeurOX YPAG (Young People’s Advisory Group)* from the NEUROSEC Group

Child participants in NSPCC project

NeurOX YPAG project members: Amelia (16 years), Asher (16 years), Caitlin (17 years), Cassia (16 years), Clara (15 years), Heather (16 years), Juniper (15 years), Peter (16 years), Simeon (14 years), Sophie (17 years).

Rising trends in emotional (psychological) maltreatment – better recognition and/or unmet need?

Public health research indicates that emotional/psychological child maltreatment (ECM) – emotional abuse and neglect – is the most pervasive and prevalent form of harm to children and adolescents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Although definitions vary globally and thresholds around chronicity and severity are hotly debated, ECM has been broadly described as persistent, non-physical, harmful interactions involving commission (abuse) and/or omission (neglect). The consequent psychological effects may lead to long-lasting and often life-long impairment expressed as emotional dysregulation, maladaptive behaviours, and associated mental health and trauma symptoms.

Despite a rising trend in recorded child protection cases of ECM, surpassing physical and sexual abuse, the number of cases is likely under-reported and the impacts on children who remain unsupported are not well understood. Inevitably ECM encroaches into all forms of abuse, so it is difficult to isolate.

The profile of ECM in the literature on child and adolescent mental health help-seeking, particularly the role of online services, is low relative to the proportion of children impacted and warrants further investigation.

Understanding barriers and facilitators during peer-peer online help-seeking in children and young people experiencing ECM

Research in adolescent populations suggests that barriers and facilitators to help seeking for mental health are likely to include personal capabilities (i.e. knowledge and their perceptions around the seriousness of the problems, autonomy, communicative, emotional and motivational factors), social aspects (i.e. fear, shame and stigma), relational factors (i.e. trust, anonymity, confidentiality) and systemic or structural factors such as accessibility and acceptability of support services.

The role of these factors and of peer support interactions during online help-seeking are not well documented but are likely to be pertinent for children and young people experiencing ECM.

Given the wider reported benefits of peer support on help-seeking for young people, understanding how these particular populations of children and adolescents make sense of their emotional worlds, and exploring what enables and empowers them to build trusting relationships and overcome fears, stigma and shame may contribute to shaping more accessible and effective peer-peer online, help-seeking services.

In addition, exploration of peer-peer message-based discourse may provide insights into how they attempt to relieve each other’s distress regardless of whether they access professional help. 

Childline’s online message boards: does peer-peer support offer more in the help-seeking journey than a gateway to professional support?

This Emerging Minds funded cross-sector placement is a collaboration between the NSPCC and the NEUROSEC Group in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford.

Since its founding in 1986, Childline (part of the NSPCC since 2006) has offered confidential support to children and young people for any concerns or issues. Over the years, Childline has met a growing demand from young people for safe, confidential spaces to communicate more generally on a range of problems and most noticeably rising concerns around emotional and mental health challenges. Childline’s anonymous online message boards aim to provide a safe, non-judgmental, online community by facilitating ‘moderated’ peer interactions.

The aim is to enable any child to connect with others, feel reassured and empowered to seek further support with regards to any perceived problem affecting their safety, wellbeing, psychological or social worries. Through interactions with their peers and moderators, a further aim of the message boards is to find out more about or choose to connect with other Childline online and counselling services to enable them to find the right support.

Thus, the services offer young people a trusted informal gateway for help on young people’s terms. The current collaborative project intends to guide an evidence-informed approach to further research and development of Childline services, and explore whether the peer-peer interactions on the message boards offer more to the young people than a gateway suggests.

It is anticipated that the inclusion of unidentifiable ‘real-world’ data from online message boards will make a valuable contribution to other peer-support providers and the research community.

Looking through the lens of young researchers – involvement of the NeurOX YPAG

The main focus of this short-term project is to involve young researchers from the NeurOX YPAG in characterising the ‘real world voices’, interactions and journeys of young people with ECM experiences who access the Childline peer-support online message boards.

The meaningful involvement of young people in the research will offer a nuanced perspective to help interpret the language and needs of their peers who have experienced ECM.

The NeurOX YPAG is a group of about 30 young people (aged 14–18 years) keen to contribute to research in mental health and ethics and support their peers. The group was set up by the NEUROSEC team in 2016 with a focus on understanding young people’s views on mental health research and the application of digital technologies. Emphasis is placed on enabling young people to inform methodology through shared decision making; based on co-production.

Through a series of three digital workshops and off-line research, a sub-group of 10 members of the NeurOX YPAG (Young People’s Advisory Group) will offer a young person’s lens to facilitate an understanding of these voices and guide the research methodology and interpretation of findings. Their involvement will be based on the principles of co-production involving: sampling methodology, data selection, qualitative analysis of fully anonymised, publicly available, message-based discourse of young people and interpretation of findings.

Through collaborations between NSPCC/Childline, young people and researchers, it is envisaged that the project will explore:

  • the language, psychological characteristics and expressed needs of children and young people with ECM when accessing support and interacting with their peers through the message boards;

  • a methodological framework to inform further analysis of real-world data from online message boards;

  • evidence to inform the further development of Childline online services.

For more information about the project please contact vanessa.bennett@psych.ox.ac.uk

*For further information about the NeurOX YPAG please visit: https://begoodeie.com/ypag/

If you are considering digital involvement of young people in mental health research, please take a look at the latest resources prepared with the NeurOX YPAG: