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New research conducted by the Neuroscience, Ethics and Society group and NeurOX Young People’s Advisory Group in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, and the NSPCC, has looked at how Childline’s message boards help support young people.

Young girl using her mobile phone © Tom Hull

The research found that using the Childline message boards could reduce young people's emotional distress and increase their willingness to seek outside help.

Vanessa Bennett, NeurOX YPAG lead, Department of Psychiatry, said:


'Young people are best placed to offer an understanding of young people’s problems and the roles of on-line interactions in this community. They also know how this platform can be of most benefit to their peers. We know that the young people who took part in this Childline message boards project were integral to the impact of our research and they were also able to learn a lot themselves from the work they carried out. It is very important that young people are given a voice in research, particularly when it directly affects them.'

Young researchers from schools across Oxfordshire co-produced research about Childline’s online message boards to find out how the service can help their peers. The research team selected a sample of message board threads for analysis. Findings included evidence that users who shared experiences of positive and realistic outcomes from speaking out about abuse actively encouraged other users to speak out and helped to alleviate fears from doing so.

The research was conducted with a group of 11 young people aged between 14-18 from The NeurOX Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG), which was initially formed by Professor Ilina Singh in the Neuroscience, Ethics and Society (NEUROSEC) group in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford.

Professor Singh explains:


'15 years ago I struggled to get funding for research on the ethics of mental health interventions that focused on young people’s experiences, voices and values. Researchers tended to do research on young people, but there was a lot of skepticism about conducting research with young people. This project exemplifies the NEUROSEC Team’s pioneering work to develop rigorous systematic methods in mental health science, co-designed with young people, and with a focus on outcomes that matter to young people. It is fantastic to see so much support for this work among funders and prominent public sector organisations like the NSPCC.'

The NSPCC is currently developing a pool of evidence to aid understanding of the difference Childline makes to young people’s lives, and its role within the support and safeguarding sector. Both the charity and NEUROSEC believed it was vital to represent young people’s voices in the research.

Using a combination of online workshops and offline activities that spanned over 135 hours, the young people contributed to all stages of the research using co-production research methods. The research focused on emotional abuse and neglect, and the young researchers felt Childline played a unique role in this area because there is little dedicated support for it. 

Clara Sayers, a 16-year-old from the Young Peoples Advisory Group, said:



'The project was fascinating as I felt I learnt a lot about the barriers and facilitators of why a young person would seek out help and it helped us all to see things from someone else’s point-of-view. The message boards are an ideal place for young people to anonymously speak out about their concerns for the first time without any worry about how other people might perceive them. It’s a way for them to seek out validation in an online society that has proven to me that it cares and won’t judge.'

Additionally, the research found that loneliness and isolation were eased as the platform allows young people to connect to empathic individuals and the Childline community. 

Cassia Bennett is 17 and was also part of the research group, she said:



'I think what struck me most about using the message boards is how often users weren’t sure if their worry was actually a concern and so often, it actually was. It’s a great place to seek initial validation and everyone is very kind and friendly on this platform as it’s monitored very well. When we spoke with the Childline panel directly we felt they really listened to us and took our thoughts onboard in order to continue improving the service.'

During the research, the YPAG team provided valuable insights on how the functionality of the boards could be updated and guidance on how to improve access and further support the young people giving and receiving support. For more information on the NeurOX YPAG

NSPCC and Childline

Emma Motherwell, NSPCC Campaigns Manager for Oxfordshire, said:



'We all know that growing up isn’t easy, but these last couple of years have put unprecedented pressures on our young people and lockdowns didn’t help with the growing concern we have for their mental health, where many have told us they have felt lonely and isolated. Our message boards have been there throughout this time and we know it’s a place many young people have turned to for help, validation of a concern and general support. It can help those who have been abused feel like they’re being taken seriously as they’re able to connect with their peers in a non-judgemental space where they’re free to share their experiences.'

The research and recently released external briefing supports the important evolution of the on-line services as Childline marks it’s 35th birthday (Saturday 30th October). Since it was founded by Dame Esther Rantzen in 1986, as a way to offer support for children when they had nowhere else to turn, the service has helped thousands of young people across the region and the rest of the country – with 50,000 attempted calls on the very first night it launched. Since then, it has evolved to help millions of young people who have contacted counsellors by phone, email and through the Childline website, speaking to specially-trained volunteers and staff to share their worries and concerns. 

View the full report, Childline message boards: evidence briefing