Children Rights at 30

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Those were the words of the great Nelson Mandela who was a powerful advocate of the rights of children and the responsibilities nations and communities have to support, develop and protect the next generation.

At a gathering in London today, I and Cllr Helen Godwin, Cabinet Member for Women, Children and Families, joined others from across the UK to celebrate the world’s foremost commitment to children, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). We discussed and debated the impact of this monumental declaration of the rights of the child whilst also reflecting on the reality of being a young person growing up in 2019.

The challenges that face children, young people and families are laid bare by the many headlines written about child poverty, increasing inequality and the impact of austerity on the services people rely on. But the question that I ask and is asked of me is; “what are you doing about it?”

Nelson Mandela also said: “Each of us as citizens has a role to play in creating a better world for our children.”

Those words are reflected in our own city’s commitment to children and young people, The Bristol Children’s Charter, which addresses its 10 commitments by saying: “No single organisation or agency can make enough progress towards these aspirations alone. Partners commit to working together to deliver this vision for all children to create a thriving city that is good for everyone.”

Our approach to support, develop and protect children and young people is a collective one. We work together with other agencies, charities, schools, colleges, universities, businesses, youth organisations and most importantly families, to put in place the structures and activities needed to deliver on our shared ambitions.

As a council we have invested £3.2m a year in youth services, which is delivering targeted services for the most deprived communities in the city. We can only do this by working with charities, youth organisations, NHS, Police and many others.

As a city we’re on the road to eradicating period poverty by pulling together the creative and organisational wealth of the city. All sectors are engaged in this movement that Cllr Godwin is driving ahead with our partners.

We’re building schools, tackling youth homelessness, delivering apprenticeships and feeding children during the summer holidays.

This and much, much more is being done because we, like the UN community, agree that the rights of the child are our responsibility to uphold and deliver.

Environmental fines increased by Cabinet

steve-pearceToday’s guest blog comes from from Cllr Steve Pearce, Cabinet Member for Waste, Commercialisation and Regulatory Services.

The government has been consulting on Household & Business recycling recently and the consultation ended yesterday, 13th May. But this is the action that we were taking locally last week to make Bristol’s streets cleaner.

Environmental crime has a significant and wholly detrimental impact on the wellbeing of our residents and to the city’s visitors, so on Tuesday the 7th May I was delighted to approve:

  • increasing fixed penalty charges for flyposting, graffiti, distribution of printed matter and fly-tipping
  • removal of the early payment rate for flyposting, graffiti, distribution of printed matter, failure to produce waste transfer notes or a waste carriers license, and
  • the introduction of a new fixed penalty in relation to the new Domestic Duty of Care.

I believe that removing the early payment rates and increasing penalty rates for some offences sends a clear message that Bristol will not tolerate behaviour that disrespects our fellow citizens.

I should point out that there is no proposal to increase the penalty rate for littering or to remove the reduced rate for early payment in relation to that offence.

The fixed penalty in relation to the new Domestic Duty of Care is a new measure so we have set the fixed penalty rate at £200. This will be reviewed in 12-18 months once it has been more widely publicised.

Our annual Quality of Life Survey highlights that litter, dog fouling and other street scene issues are of particular concern to Bristol residents.

  • According to our 2015/16 Quality of Life survey nearly 3/4 of people who responded identified street litter as a problem.
  • More than 3/5 of residents felt that dog fouling was a problem in their local area.
  • And 30 percent of respondents identified anti-social graffiti as a problem.

It is apparent that these problems are more pronounced in the city centre and some of the more deprived areas of the city.

For example, while 30.3% of respondents identified anti-social graffiti as a problem, that number rose to 47% in the City Centre and over 60% in Ashley Ward.

Groups such as Keep Britain Tidy have also noted that those living in more deprived areas are less likely to feel satisfied with the appearance of their local area compared to those living in more affluent areas.

The approach adopted in the Clean Streets plan emphasises education and community engagement alongside a more robust approach to enforcement.

The Mayor has made a pledge that Bristol will be measurably cleaner by 2020 and the Clean Streets Plan which underpins the pledge is designed to change the behaviour of people in Bristol in order to reduce litter, dog fouling, fly tipping, graffiti and other environmental crimes. This will be done by:

  • Sending a clear message
  • Cleaning up the city, and by
  • A robust, zero tolerance approach to enforcement.

Although the cleanliness of the city has improved in many parts more work needs to be done particularly in relation to behaviour change.

Although between 16/17 and 17/18 there was a reduction in the number of fly-tip incidents of over 12%, the cost of environmental crime to the city remains high. In 17/18, 8206 reports of fly tipping were made to Bristol Waste Company (BWC) costing £392,551 to remove. In the same year we spent £100,000 on removing graffiti.

The Domestic Duty of Care Fixed Penalty S34 (2A) Environmental Protection Act came into force from 7th January 2019. This enables local authorities to issue a FPN to a person who has failed to comply with the duty relating to the transfer of household waste.

The Domestic Duty of Care requirement means that householders must ask the person or business they transfer their waste to (or who arranges the transfer) for evidence of their authorisation, such as a copy of their waste carrier’s registration or proof of their exemption registration issued by the Environment Agency.

The Clean Streets publicity and communications plan will include a campaign to highlight householders responsibilities when making private arrangements to dispose of domestic waste and will highlight low cost/free options for getting rid of unwanted household goods.

Fixed penalties relating to dog fouling and dogs off lead are governed by separate legislation and are already set at the highest level currently available.

Making the streets of Bristol cleaner is one of the key objectives of the 2017-2022 Corporate Strategy. The strategy says that we will put Bristol on course to be run entirely on clean energy by 2050 and introduce a safe, clean streets campaign. The Clean Streets Campaign will be a main focus to help us improve the cleanliness of the city and focus our resources on the areas of highest need.

Hidden in plain view

Disability Discrimination in 21st Century Britain

Today’s blog comes from Michael Clinton, Research Director at the Schumacher Institute.

I am a disabled person. Getting around has always been a challenge but the wear and tear of  a few years under my belt means that my mobility is not what it once was.

It has always hurt when I landed on those marble floors beloved by shopping malls, but these falls are more likely these days. So now I have to use my wheelchair every time I go out. The sad truth is that in my lifetime nothing has really changed. A few drop kerbs and badly designed accessible toilets, inclusion do to make.

Quite simply the built environment is – even if new – hostile to disabled people. Only 5% of homes are even minimally accessible. Most new builds have at least one front door step, so getting in and out of your own home can be the first challenge! Then there is public transport. I have used planes, trains and busses in my time and they are all flawed. Tiny inaccessible toilets on aeroplanes, steps and gaps onto trains and busses all pose risks for disabled people. Even going self-propelled in a wheelchair or mobility scooter can be risky if the drop kerbs are blocked or too steep to safely use (more common than you might think). Any of which could prevent or delay you getting to work, the shops or a doctors’ appointment, now imagine if it is the route home that is blocked. You may actually be unable to get home at all!

My local railway station is only part time manned. Normally I would arrange assistance onto and off the train (thanks to the steps), a service that is usually well delivered, but it can and has for some failed totally. The homeward platform at this station is on the opposite side of the track from the station exit. To get to the exit in a wheelchair requires crossing the tracks and avoiding the Intercity 125’s. Would you risk that in a wheelchair without assistance?

If something goes wrong for an able bodied person they can usually walk out of a situation. I can’t. I’m stuck. At any point in the journey if things go wrong I could find myself in a very vulnerable situation very quickly. It is this added risk that makes life so very challenging for many disabled people. So I drive. At least I can shelter in the car and call the AA or on occasions I simply don’t travel.

A few years ago I was made redundant and so needed a job. I wrote out my CV and hunted through the situations vacant. I saw a company that closely matched my own skill set and it was barely a mile away from home. So I brushed up my CV and wrote a covering letter, donned my best suit and went round to deliver my CV. Imagine how I felt when I found that the office was an old house and completely inaccessible. I ended up getting to the front door on all fours!! Why should anyone have to get down on all fours to seek a job in the 21st century? Would you?

The point is that for disabled people to contribute we need to be allowed to participate. That means a built environment that is fit for all. ALL homes built to Lifetime Standards, FULLY accessible transport systems and a realisation that even listed buildings can and should be made accessible. We live in the present not the past!

Why should the built environment be inclusive? Well here is a little thought for you. Nearly half of the population will suffer either a permanent or temporary disability in their lives with about 1 in 5 of those of working age being disabled. This world can be very hostile for disabled people. Doorsteps basically say “no cripples here”! That kind of attitude is illegal when applied to any other identifiable group today and quite rightly so! Next time you walk down the high street look at the buildings around you. If they have steps in front the chances are they are not accessible. Which means disabled people cannot access the offered services, work there, or socialise there. Then think how would you feel if you are one of those people suddenly faced with being disabled, especially if it is your own home or place of work?

May your next journey be safe and informative.

Environmental Sustainability Board

We’re working with the Bristol Green Capital Partnership to establish a Bristol One City Environmental Sustainability Board and we’re seeking members to shape the city’s journey to the highest standards of sustainability in the shortest possible time.

This is timely in light of the UK parliament yesterday acknowledging the Climate Emergency, led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and which Bristol was the first city in the UK to declare, following the lead of cities around the world.

Bristol is fortunate to have a strong foundation of partnerships, networks and groups actively contributing to the city’s environmental sustainability.  The One City Plan’s environmental ambitions for Bristol – including to be carbon neutral, zero waste and with environmental equality, creating a better quality of life for the next generation by 2050 – are hugely challenging.  So the Environmental Sustainability Board needs members with the capacity and influence to help lead and make systemic and radical changes where needed, and inspire others to take action.

The ES Board will sit alongside economy, health and wellbeing, transport and learning boards to lead, support and advise on action to realise the ambitions of the One City Plan.

The Board will have a pivotal role in realising the One City Plan’s ambition for Bristol to be a carbon neutral city, with environmental equality, zero waste and healthy, ethical and sustainable local food practices and supply by 2050.

I invited Bristol Green Capital Partnership to create and facilitate the new ES Board. The Partnership has more than 850 member organisations from across sectors, and contributed its ‘Our Future’ vision to the development of the first iteration of the One City Plan.

An ‘expressions of interest’ process to join the ES Board has opened, inviting  organisations and individuals with the qualities, skills, experience and/or influence to enable changes on the scale needed to achieve the environmental sustainability aspects of the One City Plan.

Expressions of interest can be submitted between 2 May and 9am 20 May 2019.  Full details and information about how to apply are on the Bristol One City website.

International Workers Memorial Day

28 April marks International Workers Memorial Day. Across the world, workers and their representatives are conducting events, demonstrations, vigils and a whole host of other activities to mark the day. I marked this important occasion by attending The Joint Trade Union’s annual International Workers Memorial Day Event in Bristol.

Every year, more people die at work than in wars. Many of these deaths happen simply because employers failed to prioritise their workers’ safety.

According to the International Labour Organisation across the world every year:

  • One worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide
  • 6,000 workers die every day
  • More than two million men and women die as a result of work-related accidents and diseases
  • Workers suffer approximately 270 million accidents each year, and fall victim to some 160 million incidents of work-related illnesses
  • Hazardous substances kill 440,000 workers annually – asbestos claims 100,000 lives

The day serves as a rallying cry to “remember the dead: fight for the living”. These losses affect not only the people directly affected, but also their families and friends. It’s so important that Workers Memorial Day considers those left behind.

The day also serves as an important reminder to employers of their responsibility to promote the wellbeing of their workforce. Not just as workers, but as human beings who are valued in and of themselves. I will continue to do all I can to promote that message across Bristol, and am working closely with Trade Unions to make Bristol a safe and fair place to work, which supports its workers to thrive.

In January, I signed the TUC’s Dying to Work Charter on behalf of Bristol City Council. This is a national initiative designed to increase awareness of terminal illness in the workplace and encourage employers to provide increased help and support to any employee facing such challenging circumstances. I was pleased to be able to demonstrate our commitment as a caring employer to supporting staff that face this difficult time. I support the campaign to promote awareness of this issue and urge other employers in Bristol to do the same. We have also signed the UNITE Construction Charter, which makes sure construction workers on our sites and our contractors are better protected from injury. As well as the workers themselves, health and safety in our workplaces protects those in the wider community, and the people that use our services.

Quality employment standards go beyond health and safety measures, which is why I have written to employers in Bristol to encourage them to follow our lead and become accredited Living Wage employers. I will continue to pursue my goal of Bristol as a Living Wage City. Being safe and fairly treated at work is a right, not a privilege. As we remember the dead, we will continue to fight for improved working conditions for now and the future. And did you know on average trade union members earn 18% more than non-union workers?  If you haven’t already, join a Union today.

£1m for our Clean Streets campaign

Today we are announcing a spend of £1m on our clean streets campaign. The success of the city’s business sector in 2018/19 meant that greater than forecasted business rates were collected, allowing a portion of that surplus to be invested in the Clean Streets Action Plan in this financial year.

This is great news for the city. We have received great support for the campaign, including the introduction of fines for people who litter our streets.

But our Bristol Clean Streets campaign has always been about much more than litter. It has been about transforming the nature of the relationship between our city and its waste.

The transformation we are pursuing extends from the generation of waste, to the way we dispose of it, to its transportation, reuse, recycling, conversion to energy or other end state.

Waste is one of the foremost challenges – and opportunities – facing cities in a world that is rapidly urbanising. It’s one confronting every city on every continent, those in the global North and South, rich and poor.

If we succeed in meeting the waste challenge, we will improve the quality of life in the city and reduce our impact on the world around us – in particular reducing the plastics to sea, securing access to new sources of energy and saving money.

I recently met with the heads of our own Bristol Waste company. We talked about the importance of this challenge for Bristol and the urgent need to see and evidence we are making progress as a city.

It was clear to me coming out of the meeting that as a city we need to view Bristol Waste and those who work for it not as the people who come behind us dealing with the aspects of life we no longer value. Rather, they are in front of us, using their expertise in waste to lead us. There is something very proverbial in this, that those who have sometimes been undervalued turn out to be those with the solutions to one our most pressing problems and biggest opportunities.

For their part I have asked Bristol Waste to live up to this leadership challenge. Their job is not only to collect our waste. Rather it is to speak into the wider city system. They must also challenge and support business to change practices to reduce the amount of waste generated, drive the practices and partnerships that increase recycling and re-use, while scanning the horizon for the latest technologies and opportunities to give waste a second life as things such as energy.

Bringing Intellectual Fire Power to Bear on our City Challenges

Last Friday (29 March) saw the inaugural Bristol Forum taking place in City Hall. The Forum marks an innovative new collaboration between the Bristol City Office, University of Bristol (UoB) and University of the West of England (UWE), and aims to advance the problem-solving capacity of our city. With cooperation at its heart, the daylong event was co-created by a Collaborative Design Group comprised of organisations including Power to Change, Creative Youth Network, Babbasa, We the Curious, Bristol Health Partners, Bristol Green Capital Partnership, Voscur, Care Forum and Black South West Network, working alongside the City Office, UoB and UWE.

Attended by almost 200 people from across academia, the business, third, and public sectors, the Forum brought together research and creative approaches to address challenges relevant to the city and its communities, set out by the One City Approach. The programme saw sessions taking place across the day, with each session seeing academics collaborating positively with a wide range of city leaders to explore themes that are central to the goals set out in the One City Plan [hyperlink]. Topics tabled for discussion ranged from high level city wide initiatives to more focussed interventions. Discussions included improving the city’s air quality, new approaches to talking violence and abuse, education and social mobility, economic inclusion, and the role of communities and universities in developing solutions, to name just a few. We hope that the Forum will be an annual opportunity to share solutions, ideas and constructive challenge.

It is clear that Bristol City Council acting in isolation is unable to achieve the aims set out in the One City Plan. The Forum marks the perfect example of the One City model of working – coming together to collaboratively explore creative solutions to long term challenges. For me, the Forum is about bringing the intellectual fire power of our City Region’s two world class universities to bear on our city challenges. Most importantly, it is also about ensuring that the policy decisions we make as a city are underpinned by a clear evidence base.

Examples of the civic university are seen in the United States where universities play an important role in tackling problems of the cities in which they are based. The Bristol Forum provides Bristol’s Universities with a platform to engage in the national debate about this topic and demonstrate the role they can play in local policy making and problem solving. Professor Robin Hambleton, a key pioneer of the civic university model and Chair of the Bristol Forum planning group recently wrote an article on this theme, which is available to read here. I look forward to the next Bristol Forum and the positive influence that wide-reaching city collaboration continues to play in building a city of hope and ambition where everyone benefits from Bristol’s success.

Better Lives at Home – how we’re delivering extra care housing

Today’s guest blog is from Cllr Helen Holland, cabinet member for Adult Social Care.

One of the very best parts of my job as Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care is having the chance to visit some of the excellent initiatives we’re delivering to help transform the lives of older residents around the city.

Last week was no exception, when, alongside my colleague Cllr Ben Stokes from South Gloucestershire, I attended the formal opening of the brand new retirement village at Stoke Gifford. Bristol City Council has contributed over £3m to the development and, with South Gloucestershire, we are nominating to 81 of the flats there. This means that there are 81 flats that will be open for older people currently supported by Social Care either from Bristol City Council or South Gloucestershire Council.

The facilities here are exceptional, with spacious flats and a restaurant, games room, craft room, gym, library and more all on site. Meeting and chatting to some of the new residents who are enjoying a new lease of life since moving in, really gave me a picture of just how important it is for us to do more of this. We need to give older people the best possible quality of life in their later years – it makes sense for the individuals and it makes sense for the public purse too, it means there is much less chance older people will need nursing or residential care.

The next extra care scheme like this that will open is Haberfield House in Stockwood, which is being developed for our residents by Bristol Charities.  You can find more information about Haberfield House here: https://www.bristolcharities.org.uk/housing/stockwood

Back in Stoke Gifford, it was a joy to meet Sheila and Brian – who moved in last November. When they moved in, Sheila was dependent on a wheelchair to get around, but as she told me, “I had never set foot in a gym before I came here, but thought I would give it a go, now after just a few weeks, I can just use my walker.” It is this sort of fantastic story that really motivates me to deliver more extra care housing.

In May I will be bringing a report to Cabinet that will set out our plans for just how we do that.

I will leave the last word to Sheila and Brian, who told me that when their family want to come to visit, they both have to check their diaries as there are so many activities they want to participate in. This is exactly what we want for all our older people – better lives at home.

To find out more information about the Better Lives programme and what it means you can click here: https://www.bristol.gov.uk/documents/20182/2678414/Market+Position+Statement/bdd21e05-0a76-94ae-4094-246ad9eb5739

To find out more about the Extra Care, like the one at Stoke Gifford you can click here:
https://www.bristol.gov.uk/social-care-health/extra-care-housing

World Social Work Day 2019

Today is World Social Work Day.  It’s an opportunity to pause, recognise and celebrate the great work of our social work colleagues across the city and around the world. We’re grateful to have so many dedicated and passionate people making lives better for people every single day, often in challenging circumstances.  My guest bloggers are Principal Social Workers Maria and Vanessa, who both work for Bristol City Council.

Here, Maria tells us what it means to be a social worker.

I came into social work to make a positive difference to the lives of others and almost 20 years later I believe that social work is still the best way I can make that difference. We work in the places where people are at their most vulnerable, supporting them to take control of their lives and the way they want to live them.

I was speaking to a social worker last week who had been working with someone with dementia who was extremely reluctant to even open the door to us.  This incredibly skilled social worker was able develop trust, which ultimately meant she was able to offer support to help this person stay safe and well in their own home, despite enormous pressure from others to place them into residential care.

Another colleague stayed out late into the night last week to ensure that a very traumatised young adult in mental health crisis was safe until a hospital bed was available. She stayed with that vulnerable young person, making sure they were safe and supported.

Examples like these show how each day brings with it a fresh scenario you never imagined you might encounter. I don’t think we always realise the amount of creative thinking that is needed to be an effective social worker. Each day social workers explore different ways to support individuals to live the life they want to live in the context of people having access to often very limited personal resources. We work with people and their families to find a way through their difficulties by acknowledging their needs whilst highlighting strengths in complex and often emotionally demanding situations.

So this year’s theme for World Social Work Day is human relationships, which is very poignant for me.  Supporting people to maintain their relationships is essential to delivering good social care.  The importance of human relationships cannot be underestimated in terms of sustaining wellbeing for all of us and when these relationships break down so often does people’s mental health.  Social isolation and loneliness are key factors in predicting poor mental health.

I am observing a real shift in social work practice in Bristol.  Back towards having conversations with people to discover what they want from life and their care and support and moving away from traditional more formal solutions.   This, for me, is returning to social work’s good roots, and this makes me proud to call myself a social worker in Bristol.

Vanessa, who works with children and their families in Bristol, tells us about her chosen career.

Social working with children and families in Bristol is one of the most rewarding jobs that anyone can have. It’s fast paced and demanding but it is also really rewarding.  We work hard to help families stay together safely wherever we can and, where necessary, we take action to protect children from harm.

Our focus is always on building relationships with children and their families so we can understand what life is like for them, and working with them to make the changes needed to keep their children safe. We are also lucky to have such great colleagues in Bristol. We celebrate each other’s successes and help each other through harder times.

Today we are hosting a ‘Wellbeing’ afternoon for practitioners to mark World Social Work Day and to show just how much we value our social workers and what they do for people in our great city.  We are looking forward to welcoming to City Hall our guest speakers Dr Nina Smyth, senior lecturer from the University of Westminster, and Jane Evans, parenting specialist and expert in self-care.

Smart phones, social media and cyber-bullying

Today’s guest blog comes from Dr Susie Davies, Founder of Papaya, and considers the impact of smart phones, social media and cyber-bullying on the mental health of adolescents.    

Never before has one small object with its shiny gleaming surface and multiple apps been such an iconic symbol of modern life. From alarm clocks, to bus passes, calendars, and contactless payments our phones have become an essential part of the mechanics of our every moment. In addition are the social media platforms which help us to connect to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Even as adults, there is no doubt that smart phones, and especially the social media apps which they arsade home to, hold an addictive lure. However, most of us over the age of 30, can still remember a time before we owned a smart phone and the forgotten days of reversing charges from a phone box late at night to beg our parents for a lift home.

However, it is different for those born in the so called iGen generation (1995-2003) and the years there-after. Today’s young adults’ neuronal pathways have been formed alongside apps, social media and smart phones. Many haven’t had a tech-free window in adolescence in which to develop their sense of self or relationships without technology at the core of their interactions.

Concerns about the impact of social media and smart phones are reported in the press almost daily. The recent tragic case of Molly Russell has highlighted to parents one of our deepest fears. Even from the supposed safety of their bedrooms, our children can access harmful content online, which can potentially lead to the most devastating of consequences. But Molly’s case is sadly not an isolated one. The BBC reported that more than 30 parents have approached PAPYRUS (a support charity for young people struggling with suicidal thoughts) to say they believe that social media was implicated in their child’s suicide (1). However, suicide is but the tip of the iceberg. There is a huge mountain of mental health issues, which are potentially triggered or compounded by social media, affecting our children today.

The evidence for the effect of the potential harm of social media and smart phones has been contested. Despite this Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer, has advised that parents should take a precautionary  approach with regards to phone use  in children because of the potential risks, which are as yet unmeasured.(2) Personally, it feels similar to the denial of the smoking – lung cancer link in the 1950s. The rise of lung cancer and the potential link to smoking was becoming apparent, but the evidence was not yet clear (or as was the case with smoking the evidence was actually being hidden by those who sought to profit from tobacco). Do we as a new generation of parents shut our eyes and pretend the negative impact of social media is not happening? Or do we have the courage to decide to act differently for our children?

Apart from the obvious issue of lost time – time which could be spent pursuing hobbies, doing home-work, and socialising with real people – what are the other issues?

To me, the real heart of the issue is the effect that social media is having on our young people’s ability to develop a robust self-esteem. Self-esteem is our unique internal mirror. It can be a true reflection of self, or as is often the case in adolescents, it is a negatively warped perception of our true self and value. This is rather like looking at a distorted image of yourself in a fairground mirror! Self-esteem goes up and down with the world around us or even more importantly varies according to how we perceive our role (either good or bad) in these events. Adolescence is notoriously a period for poor self-esteem. Puberty, exam pressures and relationship issues all arise in a narrow window of time when many teenagers will inevitably experience some emotional turbulence.

It is into this toxic mix of hormones and self-doubt that the Pandora’s Box of social media has arrived. Instead of learning to self-reflect in a positive way, which is an essential part of the healthy  adolescent journey, social media sites have externalised self-esteem to social media platforms making young people dependent on ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ for their self worth. The search for the perfect selfie or the need for an affirming response from followers is, at best, an exhausting place to inhabit.

“Social media and its dopamine induced high of likes and followers doesn’t actually translate into real life experiences or happiness.”

Social media is inadvertently reducing young people’s ability to self-evaluate. By making them dependent on other people’s opinions, it is having a dramatic effect on their ability to develop a robust self-esteem and to build emotional resilience. At the simplest level, it is virtually impossible to feel happy if you don’t like yourself. Young women seem to be particularly affected by this with a quarter of 17-19 year-old females having a diagnosed mental health problem.(3) This is a very significant statistic and it should ring alarm bells to parents, politicians, and anyone who cares for the future welfare of our nation.

Recently, I received a despairing email, in the middle of the night from a mother whose daughter was being cyber-bullied. The mother was desperate and said her daughter was self-harming and suicidal. This had been caused by the hateful messages she was getting online. I don’t think anyone can really deny the potential harmful effect of cyber-bullying on young people’s well-being.  Issues traditionally resolved in the playground are now, very publicly and relentlessly, being played out online, both during the day and, worse still, at night. A recent study found that 18% of children have been bullied online.(4) This is a potentially public and highly humiliating experience which can, and often does, result in anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.

“The experience of being cyberbullied was associated with greater stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. Victims were also more likely to exhibit a range of behavioural, emotional and somatic symptoms, and the findings identified a moderately strong association with suicidal intention. This suggests that victims were significantly more likely to have contemplated committing suicide.” (5)

However, research suggests that only 13% of children being bullied online will delete the app. On the other hand, 24% turn to self-harm and a further 22% will attempt to change their appearance in response to the abuse. (6)

These figures reflect the power that social networking sites have over children; that they are almost twice as likely to self-harm as they are to delete the app on which they are being bullied.

Returning to my story, I was able to advise the mother to encourage her daughter to delete the app she was being bullied on or alternatively to have a period without her phone. Her mother emailed back to say her daughter had voluntarily given up her phone and was now a different child. She was back in control of her life and had cut the magnet by which the bullies could access her.

In my work as a GP I am regularly seeing young adults with significant and enduring mental health problems, which include anxiety and depression, personality disorders, self-harm and suicidal intention. Is it more than coincidence that these young people are the first generation of adults to grow up with unlimited access to smart phones and social media?

As parents (I have three children) what can we do in this tumultuous season? We don’t want to live in fear but equally, none of us want our child to be the victim of cyber-bullying or of self-harm algorithms on social media. All of us, I believe, would want our children to thrive in making personal connections and relationships.  Cynics will say that it is a digital world and that tech-savvy teens will have an advantage in their future work place. However, social skills and resilience are essential if the next generation is to navigate the complexities of the real world and relationships.

What do I propose? The charity I have set up PAPAYA (Parents against Phone Addiction in Young Adolescents) aims to help children thrive in the digital age. It is also to support parents to make good, positive choices around their family’s use of technology. However, to achieve this, we as parents, need to be prepared to work together. We all know how hard it can be to say no and the persuasive tsunami that our children assault us with when they really want something. However, how much easier is it to set positive boundaries when we know other parents are doing the same thing? One parent that I recently met said their community of parents had all agreed their children could only play Fortnite (a very addictive online game) at weekends (and even then for only set periods of time). Another mother, phoned all the parents of the children that her son was gaming with. They agreed a set time that they would all get their children to stop.

As parents, what are our options? At PAPAYA we encourage parents to come up with their own personal solutions and also solutions at a community level. There are no set answers and each family will find something different that works for them. Some groups of parents have collaborated and sent their children to secondary school with nothing more than a basic phone. By doing this en masse you ensure your child is not alone. However, this is not the answer for everyone. A huge step forward would be to follow the advice from Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, not to allow phones in rooms at night. It is within the isolation of a bedroom that most of the dark side of technology occurs (such as online grooming, pornography, inappropriate content about self-harm and cyber-bullying).

If as parents we can get back on the front foot and make unified decisions together we can see our children advantage from all the positives of technology without being negatively affected by its darker side.

Dr Susie Davies

Founder of PAPAYA

www.papayaparents.com

References:

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47019912
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/feb/07/children-parents-screen-time-electronic-devices-bedrooms-uk-medical-officers
  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-46295719 
  4. The Health behaviour of school aged children survey http://www.hbscengland.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/National-Report-2015.pdf
  5. Kowalski,R.M.,etal.,Bullying in the Digital Age: A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis of Cyberbullying Research Among Youth. Psychological Bulletin, 2014
  6. https://www.ditchthelabel.org/research-papers/the-wireless-report/

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