Wednesday 29 July 2009


Bullying the public

The latest NSPCC/ChildLine initiative on bullied children presents both adults and kids as toxic beings.

A new report from the UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children shows that a record 58,311 boys called the NSPCC’s telephone counselling service, ChildLine, last year – twice as many as five years ago. The issue boys were most likely to call about was bullying, which accounted for 12,568 calls.

In the NSPCC pocket guide for schools, titled Worried? Need to talk?: Keeping Safe and Strong, children are warned that ‘bullying and discrimination, whether by adults or by other young people, are abusive and can hurt you physically and emotionally’. Bullying is defined by the NSPCC as ‘hitting, taking a person’s things, name-calling and making racist or homophobic comments’. Children are encouraged not to ‘suffer in silence’ and not to feel obliged to ‘deal with these problems on your own’ (1).

Only a heartless person would want to see a child ‘suffer in silence’. But that does not mean it is a good idea for schools, or anybody else for that matter, to promote the NSPCC’s message, encouraging children who are upset and distressed to deal with their problems by turning to a faceless person on the other end of a telephone line. There is a real danger that ChildLine does more harm than good, by filling children’s heads with negative messages about the adults and other children in their lives.

Take the statement by the head of ChildLine, Sue Minto: ‘Desperate boys call ChildLine because they feel they have no one to turn to. It’s heartbreaking to hear their stories of rape and violent beatings, often by their parents.’ She adds that sometimes, by the time the boys call, ‘they can be suicidal’ (2).

But how many of the children calling ChildLine are likely to have been raped and violently beaten by their parents? Very few, I suspect. Yet this quote about rape and violent beatings, ‘often by parents’, was the one that the NSPCC decided to include in its press release about the tens of thousands of boys who called ChildLine last year.

The vast majority of parents are not abusive and violent; they love their children and try to do their best for them. Sadly, some parents do physically and sexually abuse their children, and some children suffer shocking neglect – sometimes with fatal consequences. Society does need to find a way to protect these children. But a helpline is not the answer. The solution is far more complex.

I would be willing to concede that ChildLine may do some good for some children on some occasions: undoubtedly there will be examples of children who felt better after talking to a ChildLine counsellor. A concerned voice on the other end of the phone can no doubt give some children the strength they need to get through a difficult situation. But I would still argue that, on the whole, initiatives such as ChildLine do more harm than good.

My main concern is the potentially damaging effect of the negative messages that ChildLine, the NSPCC and others communicate to children: they frequently depict the adults and other children in young people’s lives as predatory, nasty and harmful. We need to ask what the consequences will be for society – and for children themselves – if the trust that children have traditionally placed in the various people in their lives is continually undermined and eroded by external third parties.

Of course, it is not only the NSPCC that is to blame for this corrosion of trust. The government should take its fair share of blame, too. There is no shortage of government-sponsored campaigns that try to poison children’s minds with fear and distrust. Take the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act – passed into law in England and Wales in 2006 – which requires that millions of adults whose work involves coming into contact with children undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks first. The message this gives to parents and children is to be suspicious of any adult who wants to work with children. In effect, every adult is presented as a potential paedophile.

And it is not only adults who are presented by the government and government-sponsored charities like the NSPCC as abusive and potentially harmful; children are also presented as nasty little monsters who can destroy lives through bullying.

For some children – a minority – bullying is indeed a profound problem. Some children are lonely and isolated, shunned by their peers, and regularly ridiculed, humiliated or even beaten by other children. Adults do need to work out how they can help in such situations. But we should be honest and acknowledge that there really are no magic solutions when children are shunned by their peers.

By intervening in a firm but sensitive manner, an adult may be able to help a child who is being bullied. But equally they may make the situation worse, creating a more permanent wedge between the ‘victim’ and the ‘bullies’. Also, by intervening an adult may undermine the child’s ability to manage the situation for himself, making life harder for the child in the long run.

Also, much that is defined as bullying today is not bullying. It is boisterous banter or everyday playground disputes that could – and should – be resolved without adult intervention. When bullying comes to mean anything from ‘hitting, taking a person’s things and name-calling’ to ‘making racist or homophobic comments’, then virtually every aspect of children’s lives and everyday conflicts become subject to adult intervention, including by strangers on the end of a telephone line.

As I have argued previously on spiked, anti-bullying campaigns – including those initiated by the NSPCC – lead to a situation where children become unwilling to, and incapable of, resolving their own problems with their peers. This could damage children’s development, and their relationships with each other, far more than the odd stone thrown or insult shouted.

We need to appreciate that children are children, rather than nasty little brutes or helpless victims. It is true that children argue. They trade insults. They fight. But, more often than not, they make up again.

As I argue in Reclaiming Childhood: ‘If we can harness a more positive outlook about our fellow human beings and challenge institutionalised suspicion and state-authorised scaremongering, then we might free up our children’s lives and allow them both to enjoy themselves and to learn how to become an adult.’

Reclaiming Childhood, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)


(1) Worried and need to talk, NSPCC, 2009

(2) Surge in boys calling ChildLine, NSPCC, 27 July 2009

(3) Surge in boys calling ChildLine, NSPCC, 27 July 2009

First published by spiked