Editors Picks Social commentary

The illusion of justice: Mothers, IPVA and the family courts

Mia Scally (Forensic Psychology PHD student at MDX) outlines 4 of the 6 main myths affecting mothers and children in family court getting their voice heard and justice served.

I’m a lecturer in forensic psychology and forensic criminology in the Criminology and Sociology department and as part of my PhD in Forensic Psychology (supervised by Dr Miranda Horvath and Professor Joanna Adler), I have been exploring survivor experiences of the family courts when it comes to child contact [1].

Over the course of three qualitative studies (including accounts from 72 women and 17 professionals), six distinct myths [2] and challenges have been identified, four of which will be discussed as part of this blog. It is suggested that these myths are believed by professionals operating within the child contact system, resulting in disastrous consequences for both mothers and their children.

Whilst research from the USA highlights similar myths and destructive beliefs, this blog seeks to outline these myths, the evidence base disproving them, and the dangers of accepting these myths as reality from the perspective of survivors in England and Wales.

Whilst the recent legislation (Domestic Abuse Act, 2021) has taken steps to protect women from Intimate Partner Violence and Abuse (IPVA), it cannot rewrite an individual’s beliefs. This is important to note when it comes to the family courts due to the amount of discretion held by Judges, whether this is intended or not.

For example, fact finding hearings (to ascertain whether IPVA has taken place and examine the evidence) are only ordered if the Judge feels that the findings would impact the outcome of the case. Therefore if an individual believes that IPVA does not impact a child, or that the conflict is relationship based, the IPVA might not be considered as part of the case at all.

Further examples include not giving women the time to discuss the impact of the IPVA on them and their children (because IPVA is viewed as being directed towards a partner and not experienced by the whole family), viewing women as vengeful and therefore being biased towards fathers (e.g. being identified as implacably hostile), the list goes on.

So here we examine four of the six myths that place women and children in danger, and that have potentially contributed to the deaths of 56 children at the hands of fathers known by authorities to have been abusive.

It’s relationship conflict

Women in the study discussed how IPVA was viewed as a conflict between two parents, notably conflict that had little to do with the children involved.

There was no understanding of what domestic violence is about, absolutely none, and they just think it’s to do with the relationship between the two of you and you’re an equal part of that relationship and actually, it’s not like that at all.

Meredith [3], Survivor

In reality, as Meredith alludes to, IPVA is about power and control, with fathers doing anything necessary to maintain this power and control – including using the children to harm the mother (also voiced by professionals taking part in this study). It is not a balanced argument between two people. It is not a ‘difficult divorce’ but a harmful and dangerous power imbalance.

Despite this, professionals were described as unaware of what IPVA entails, with Elena (Survivor) disclosing how a solicitor told her, despite acknowledging her partner as abusive, “it would be better for my ex to have unsupervised as he is at no risk to my children”.

Interlinked with this myth, is the belief that IPVA consists of explosive bouts of uncontrolled anger. Another myth.

Anger is expressive

IPVA consists of instrumental aggression. In other words, it’s goal orientated. The main goal being to maintain the control in the relationship. Abusive fathers do not ‘lose their temper’ in frustration. This is why men that abuse their partners attend behaviour change courses that are specific to IPVA and not general anger management courses. That is a different kind of anger, and placing men that are abusive on an anger management course can be particularly dangerous.

Despite this, women in the study explained how their partner’s anger would be explained away as being upset over the situation, or frustration at not being able to see the children.

Even when he was seeing them and he was really just spending all his time shouting at me, the professionals would say, ‘oh it’s just the sight of you makes him really cross.

Meredith (Survivor)

Some described how this ‘burst of anger’ was viewed as separate to the case. Carry (Survivor) explains “One Judge seemed to believe he was simply upset at separation therefore lashed out at me – but this should not impact on contact”.

The notion here is that IPVA has no impact on the children, or that the children are unaffected by their father screaming at their mother (the evidence suggests otherwise). IPVA has an impact on everyone in the household, resulting in adverse consequences for mothers AND children.

Woman in black and white looking worried

It’s a parenting problem

Federica (Survivor) extends the discussion of parenting, explaining that the family courts view both parents as ineffective once abuse has been disclosed. In fact, Federica was ordered to attend a parenting programme alongside her partner, despite the children describing their mother as their support system and Federica doing everything in her power to protect and empower her children. The joke? Only Federica attended the programme. Her partner didn’t feel the need. The consequences? Zero. This is not uncommon and is highlighted by Refuge as an ‘inappropriate response to domestic abuse’.

Some researchers question the ability of abusive fathers to effectively parent at all if the abusive behaviour is not addressed, something echoed by professionals taking part in this study:

And she was told exactly that in court; ‘well I know he was abusive towards you but that doesn’t make him a bad father’. It does. In my personal opinion, it does. If someone went to prison for assault on another human being you wouldn’t let them come out and look after your children.

Maria (Professional)

Many of the women in the study would agree with this parenting inefficacy, describing the fathers as ‘throwing tantrums’ when they don’t get their own way, manipulating children and/or being particularly authoritarian – but with no clear rules that anyone can follow.

The women in the study felt that the courts didn’t acknowledge the IPVA but suggested that the two parents were unable to parent effectively and that dealing with this would resolve the issue.

But IPVA goes beyond a parenting issue. It is not a lack of communication, or understanding how to implement boundaries. And requiring mothers to attend a parenting programme when there is no evidence to suggest that they are the problem is the wrong message to be sending.

As Julia, a professional participant from the study noted, “A lot of the pressure of the work that we ask them to do is situations that they’ve not put themselves in, they’ve been put in, and now we’re asking them to do the work to keep their children safe, it’s a catch 22.” .

What a charming man!

Part of the issue here (beyond not understanding the dynamics of IPVA and the impact it has) may be the way that abusive men present themselves to others, and professionals being subject to the ‘charm’ of an abuser. What Enander (2010) describes as fathers switching from Jekyll to Hyde.

Enander describes survivors as detailing their partners as having two sides; the side that is charming, sociable and smart and the side that is aggressive, manipulative and controlling. Survivors describe their partner as being able to switch from one to the other with great ease, although it is Dr Jekyll (the charming side) that is displayed to others, making the possibility of Mr Hyde seem unbelievable. Morena (Survivor) states, “out in public you would think he was/is the man/father of the year”.

The emotional work of leaving such a ‘perfect’ illusion can be a challenge in itself but having to convince others that Mr Hyde exists can be a case of life or death when it comes to children and contact arrangements. Again, suggesting a lack of knowledge when it comes to abusive men, Meredith (Survivor) describes how difficult it was to be believed, ultimately having to wait for everyone involved to see the behaviour that she had been disclosing since the beginning.

This included Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service), Judges, and other professionals involved in the system:

It was really horrible that they had to wait and see what he would, you know. They had to see for themselves, to experience it for themselves, that, I think, was really awful.

The end result? Mother’s feel punished, revictimized and powerless. In short, abused by the system that is supposed to protect them and their children.

I feel trapped by this horrible person and he seems to get sanctioned by the legal system to do so!

Soraya (Survivor)

Where do we go from here?

For more updates about this PhD, or to find out more, please get in touch.

[1] See previous blog post for a reflection of my own personal experiences researching this topic.

[2] Please note – parental alienation is not considered as part of this blog, but the evidence base shows a clear bias in the family courts towards fathers when it comes to this. In reality, the term derives from a lack of evidence and the notion that mothers alienate children from their fathers in the context of IPVA is a recognised fallacy. If you want to read more about this, please see the work of Meier, and Barnett.

[3] Names of survivors and professionals have been changed throughout to preserve anonymity.

Editors Picks Social commentary

Is there a link between whistleblowing and autism?

David Lewis, Professor of Employment Law and Head of the Whistleblowing Research Unit at Middlesex University, and Helen Evans, former whistleblower at Oxfam with a diagnosis of ASC discuss the benefits of further researching the links between whistleblowing characteristics and those with ASC.

Further research is needed to investigate the link between whistleblowing and autism [1]. Historically, researchers have examined the personality characteristics associated with whistleblowers but a more specific question raised recently is whether workers with diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) might be particularly valuable to organisations that are keen to ensure transparency, accountability and good governance.

As a result, we are calling for empirical research to further investigate the link between autism and whistleblowing, and how organisations can support whistleblowers with ASC.

What are Autistic Spectrum Conditions?

There are a range of definitions of autism. According to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), “autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction. Autism is a spectrum disorder.”  Similarly, the Autism Awareness Centre defines autism as “a lifelong, non-progressive neurological disorder” and the National Autistic Society refers to autism as “a lifelong developmental disability”.

A more neutral description would be that the autistic spectrum consists of a range of neurological developmental conditions that are part of the wider notion of neurodiversity. Instead of regarding variations in sociability, learning, mood and attention as pathological disorders, neurodiversity is consistent with a social model of these conditions which focuses on societal barriers to inclusion. Indeed, the great attraction of using the word neurodiversity is that treats ASC as a normal human variation.  

Key strengths associated with autism can include a strong sense of right and wrong, determination and conviction in their ideas and beliefs, honesty, loyalty and logical thinking. ASC is also associated with difficulties in social interaction, non–verbal communication as well as restricted and repetitive behaviour patterns.

Unsurprisingly, people with ASC who have impaired language and intelligence are less likely to be in jobs. It is estimated that 1.1% of people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum, however, according to the National Autistic Society, only 16% of autistic people are in full-time employment and 43% have said they have left or lost a job because of their condition.

Rather than focus on the general issue of employability of people with ASC, we looked at the particular contribution autistic people could make as workers in an organisation that is keen to identify wrongdoing and take remedial action. As Transparency International persuasively argue, the business case for whistleblowing is a powerful one. Thus, in theory, persons willing and able to speak up effectively should be in great demand.

What is whistleblowing?

The most widely used definition of whistleblowing is “the disclosure by organisation members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organisations that may be able to affect action”.  

One of the reasons this definition is not reflected in national legislation is that it refers to matters that are clearly open to wide interpretation. What one person regards as immoral or illegitimate practices may be different to the views of another. The two main reasons why people do not report wrongdoing is that they do not believe that remedial action will be taken and/or that the person raising a concern will suffer retaliation. 

However, researchers have suggested that people with ASC focus more on the outcomes of situations than the intentions of the persons in those situations. Indeed, one reason why those with ASC might be more likely to become whistleblowers is because they may rigidly believe that if something bad happens there will or should be consequences. They may refuse to acknowledge or accept the existence of organisational and other barriers which might prevent rectification of proven wrongdoing.

Autistic people may also be unable to predict accurately what other people may be thinking or feeling and have difficulties reading non-verbal communications. As a result, they may fail to pick up on or chose to ignore the social cues which suggest that reprisals might be suffered even when raising concerns is formally encouraged at the workplace. Alternatively, those with ASC may be well aware of the social consequences, including the possibility or retaliation, but simply not care about them.

Potential issues for Whistleblowers with ASC (WASCs)

The law does not require whistleblowers to conduct their own investigations in order to obtain proof but statutory protection requires workers to have reasonable grounds to believe that wrongdoing will occur, is occurring or has occurred.  

Unfortunately, this can create a risky Catch 22 situation – without investigating there may be no grounds on which to hold a reasonable belief but by investigating a worker may be guilty of misconduct because that is not within their remit.

Nevertheless, a WASC who is convinced that wrongdoing is taking place may be less deterred by this dilemma and choose to take whatever steps are felt necessary to find supporting evidence. If WASC’s put themselves at greater risk of being accused of misconduct, there is an argument that employers should have proper support mechanisms in place for them.

Indeed, a WASC who is keen to pursue a matter might be less likely than others to be deterred by the need to complete detailed forms or follow the templates used by providers of whistleblowing ‘hotlines’. If dissatisfied with the internal response – being ignored or perhaps a decision not to investigate or take remedial action – a WASC’s discomfort with disorder may mean that they are more willing than most people to appeal up the management hierarchy.

WASC’s may raise it repeatedly until it is addressed ‘their’ way, making them more liable to be disciplined for inappropriate behaviour. In a number of cases the courts have drawn a distinction between the disclosure of information about wrongdoing and the manner in which it is made. 

In practice, the particular words used in raising a concern may be important. For example, allegations of  fraud are not likely to be welcomed by managers but explaining that clients are being overcharged may well be better received. WASC’s may look to use the media even though such involvement is likely to be resented by organisations and could result in reprisals.

Disclosures to the media are unlikely to attract legal protection under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (and could give rise to claims against them for breach of confidence). WASC’s may be aware but less influenced by such considerations.


From a wider perspective, there are clear financial benefits to society if talented but previously excluded people are integrated into the workforce.

We have hypothesized that the characteristics commonly associated with ASC might make people with ASC more likely than people with a predominant neurotype to be effective whistleblowers and, as such, are a particular asset to organisations that are keen to ensure transparency, accountability and good governance. 

We believe that hiring people with ASC can bring tangible economic and other benefits to an organisation. We are therefore calling for empirical research to be carried out to explore the following key questions:

  1. Do whistleblowers demonstrate common characteristic traits that are expressed in ways that differ to the population in general?
  2. If there are common characteristics demonstrated by whistleblowers that differ to the population in general, how do these correlate with common characteristic traits to be found in people with autism spectrum condition? 
  3. What additional needs might a whistleblower with autism spectrum condition have compared to a whistleblower without this condition in order to be effective at raising concerns and how can this inform reporting arrangements?

[1] This contribution is based on a discussion paper entitled “Autistic employees as whistleblowers: are employers ignoring potentially valuable assets? This is available via the Middlesex University e-repository.

Editors Picks Social commentary

Working backwards with No. 10

Roger Kline is Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School. In this blog he responds to the employment section of the controversial recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

First, the pre-determined conclusion

The Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report is part of a political project mapped out some time ago.

In 2017, Munira Mirza, the (now) head of the No 10 Policy Unit, who commissioned the Sewell Commission) dismissed the concept of institutional racism claiming “a lot of people in politics thinks it’s a good idea to exaggerate the problem of racism”.

In 2019, Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, said ”too much ground had been ceded to the Left on issues of identity […] We need to reassert the value of individual and character above the particular type of group you might happen to be a member of […] I think there’s been too much identity politics in Britain”.

Nine months ago, Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister, having claimed (falsely as the subsequent leaks confirmed) that the Fenton Review on COVID-19 did not make recommendations, then “hit back at claims ‘systemic injustice’ is the reason ethnic minorities are more likely to die from coronavirus in England.”

Their collective views individualise the challenge to inequality, undermine collective challenge and institutional interventions. The idea of institutional discrimination is denied, whatever the data may show. There is an emphasis on individual effort rather than collective challenge, underpinned by the assertion (contrary to the evidence) that we live in a meritocracy where all may equally, irrespective of identity, rise to the top.

One crucial obstacle to this view of social policy is the MacPherson Report (1988) which analysed discriminatory practices within the Metropolitan Police in a manner applicable across all public services as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping.

One purpose of the 2021 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report is to undermine that insight and instead counter pose individual effort to collective change.

In reaching its pre-determined conclusion it plays fast and loose with both data and research.

…Now, the evidence

Take the section on public sector (especially NHS) employment; there is no sense that the conclusions either flow from the assembled evidence or are a coherent whole.


Whilst the Commission attributes evidence of race discrimination to individual cases not to a pattern of structural discrimination, several of the Commission’s proposals (some of which are helpful) appear to acknowledge that there are indeed patterns of discrimination not just the individual instances the report argues are the norm.


The authors appear to have neither interrogated the very large NHS database on workforce and staff survey metrics, nor discussed their proposals with those leading the NHS work on workforce race equality including the Workforce Race Equality Standard.

The NHS database conclusively demonstrates that patterns of race discrimination do exist in NHS recruitment, promotion, development, discipline and bullying, and that they are so systematic and sustained that it is difficult not to conclude that Macpherson’s definition applies to the NHS.

Indeed the Commission itself appears to come close to accepting that institutional race discrimination as defined by MacPherson exists when it accepts that “Human beings tend to discriminate, even when unintended” (p.122) and that “it is possible to have racial disadvantage without racists”.


The authors suggests that the lived experience of racial bias is a matter of “perception”. The Occupational Preferences report (p.120) they commissioned found that respondents felt:

  • Being a manager is a risky choice
  • Feedback to become a manager is poor.

It is hard to know why this section is included at all. The sample is small (n=116), not representative (“an uneven distribution for gender, White and ethnic minority groups, and full and part-time employees”), and the conclusions are hardly new.

The refusal to accept that bias is a real and dynamic factor is repeated (p.123) where, discussing recruitment, the report states, “there is a perception that people at the top tend to have affinity bias, appointing people in their own image.”  

The Commission’s conclusion is that, “there are simple HR activities which can address these perceptions”. There is not even a hint in the report as to what the “simple HR activities” are that can address these “perceptions”.

That may be because these are not “perceptions” but are grounded in the widespread lived experience of BME managers across the NHS. In fact, the bias experienced is not ethereal but grounded in systematic discrimination at work.

There is a body of research showing how Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) managers are held to a higher standard and that feedback to BME staff (including appraisals) is systematically poor. Those systematic and sustained processes are what needs to change but “simple HR activities” that deny those processes exist won’t achieve that.


The report (p.121) unwisely launches an assault on the gold standard social audit research conducted in both the UK and the USA. Their results, replicated on several occasions by different researchers in different contexts, demonstrate that when identical job applications are submitted with one ‘English’ sounding name and one ‘foreign’ sounding name, this results in much greater likelihood of applicants being shortlisted if their name sounds ‘English’.

Such findings strongly suggest systematic racial bias, not the odd example of racism.


The report (p.125) states

“Most researchers remain sceptical about the impact of unconscious bias training, quotas and diversity specialists. Research by Kalev and Dobbin, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that mandatory diversity and inclusion measures have not always been successful.

Quotas have been slipped in to this sentence but it is not clear why, as they are not advocated by the NHS and are unlawful in the UK.

Targets are not unlawful, but are quite different. They are used across many aspects of employment (including by the UK Government) and there is a body of evidence demonstrating that whether they are called targets or goals, they can be effective, depending on how they are used.

The report is rightly sceptical of the impact of unconscious bias training (UBT) on decision making and it is true that too often employers have treated UBT as a silver bullet to tackle discrimination. However, as the report rightly accepts such training can play a role in improving the cognitive understanding of bias:

“[…] the Commission recognises the place of such practices (diversity and unconscious bias training) in the journey to promote diverse and inclusive work environments.”

The Commission rightly then states:

“[…] that diversity and eliminating disparities requires impactful organisational redesign and training that leads to truly inclusive environments.”

And on p.125:

“Organisations can be (re)designed to change behaviour, and therefore outcomes.”

It then muddies the argument by providing a rather random list of such measures which are of varying effectiveness and completely fails to include those measures that research highlights are essential such as debiasing processes and inserting effective accountability.

It states:

“This indicates ‘nudge’-style procedures (such as name-blind CVs, transparent performance metrics, family friendly policies, proactive mentoring and networking procedures) are more useful than methods that overtly discriminate against some groups, for example quotas.”

It raises again the straw argument of quotas. Its statement that, “research by Kalev and Dobbin, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that mandatory diversity and inclusion measures have not always been successful” is, of course, true. There is no magic wand.

However, Kalev and Dobbin are strongly in favour of accountability (both internally and externally) and provide evidence as to why, not just nudges. Indeed the Commission’s recommendation on the CQC role seems to suggest the Commission agrees.


The report notes (p.116) that ethnicity pay gaps are relatively small at NHS senior manager level and very between different BME groups and white staff and concludes:

“Such a picture is not consistent with a pattern one might expect of systemic discrimination, although undoubtedly, there will be cases of discrimination and bias in what is the largest employer in the country.”

This appears to be the only evidence in the entire report produced in support of the claim that there is no “systematic discrimination” in the NHS.

This conclusion ignores the rather obvious question about why the proportion of senior managers from BME backgrounds has been (and still is) so much lower than the proportion of senior managers from White backgrounds. It ignores the detailed data showing that currently across all grades it is 1.61 times more likely that White staff will be appointed once shortlisted compared to BME staff, and that there is a steep ethnicity gradient in which the proportion of BME staff declines as the grade gets higher.

For example, 27.5% of Band 5 Agenda for Change staff are from BME heritage but this drops at senior manager level to 10.5% (Band 8C) and 8.0% (Band 8D), something not mentioned in the report.


The Report counter-poses cognitive bias to demographic bias. It states:

“Greater emphasis should be placed on diversity of thought and perspective around a board table which is not associated with anyone’s race or ethnicity.”

This feels like a polite version of Dominic Cummings’ claim that people “talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity.’ They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity’ […] What [we need] is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity”.

In fact we need both cognitive and demographic diversity since, as Scott Page (2017) and others demonstrate, they are not alternatives but very significantly overlap.


The employment section of the Commission report demonstrates the danger of reaching conclusions and then looking for evidence to support them.

It will not assist the work to reduce racism in public sector employment and risks doing the exact opposite unless rebuffed.

Coronavirus and COVID-19 Social commentary

Online child sexual abuse during COVID-19. What do the experts say?

Dr Elena Martellozzo, Associate Professor and Criminologist at MDX, presents some of the key issues that were raised during the UKCIS webinar by high-level experts from research, policy and practice.

The risk to children of online sexual abuse, alongside other forms of online harm, is likely to have increased as a result of isolation measures, with children being educated and spending more time online.

Whilst we do not know the true impact of COVID-19, and the harm inflicted to children by offenders during lockdown, it is recognised that it’s an increasing problem and, as a result, needs to be addressed.

The online event was organised by the UK Council for Internet Safety Evidence Group (UKCIS) and supported by the Marie Collins Foundation, the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) from Middlesex University and the University of East London’s Institute for Connected Communities (ICC) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Children online

It’s important to acknowledge that there are enormous benefits for children from being online. In fact, it is only through acknowledging those benefits that “we can better understand the potential for harm to children and seek to mitigate risk through robust research and through safeguarding policy and practice,” said Professor Julia Davidson OBE, Director of the ICC at the University of East London.

Little boy viewed from the back as he looks at a laptop set up in front of him

Supporting this ethos, Dr Jeffrey DeMarco, Senior Fellow with the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) and a Research Director at NatCen Social Research, said that “understanding offending, victimisation and the impact of child sexual exploitation and abuse on wider society is important in forging the best preventative measures moving forward.”

What’s being done to prevent this?

A number of vital changes are taking place in the digital environment to protect children and young people. Early this year the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has adopted  General Comment 25, which now extends children rights to the digital environment.

Furthermore, in the UK, the Online Harms Legislation  is due to be passed imminently, which places responsibility on companies for their users’ safety online, especially children and other vulnerable groups. This is the opportunity for companies and cyber safety technologies to step in and provide protection to its users.

In January 2021, the Home Secretary published the Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, which sets out the government’s vision for preventing, tackling and responding to child sexual abuse in all its forms, whether it’s committed in person or online, in families or communities, in the UK or overseas.

The aims of the strategy were set out clearly at the webinar by Victoria Jepson, Head of Strategy, International and Knowledge in the tackling exploitation and abuse unit at the home office.  Jepson claimed: “We have also made commitments around providing victims and survivors, with the support needed to rebuild their lives.”

Clearly a lot of work is taking place in this area, not only to support victims and survivors but also to prevent young people from further victimisation.

Has online abuse become the norm for digital children?

Dr Jo Bryce, Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, presented some of the findings from De-Shame, a project co-financed by the European Union. Bryce argued that whilst the internet plays an essential role in their lives, for many young people, online sexual harassment, unfortunately, is embedded in their digital lives and to some extent normalised and too often not reported to an adult.

Projects such as De-Shame are vital bringing voices of children to the surface. As Tink Palmer, CEO of the Marie Collins Foundation pointed out: “It is difficult for children to report what has happened to them.” There is evidence to suggest that often children fear the consequences of reporting such as being prohibited by their parents to access their devices and being online.

Dr Victoria Baines, a Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University, highlighted the importance of utilising evidenced based data, as some sources are unreliable and do not provide “the true picture” of whether online grooming has increased in the UK due to COVID-19.  Baines argued: “We are assuming that being online is an inherently risky business, that more time online increases the risk of children, and as a consequence of spending more time online during lockdown, grooming in the UK has increased.” Whilst there has been an increase of online child sexual abuse, we cannot yet establish whether this increase is because of the lockdown.

Child sexual abuse is on the rise, offline and online

Talking about the increase of online child sexual abuse, more generally, Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council lead for Child Protection and Abuse Investigations, offered frontline reports of the problem and presented some very strong evidence stating how “in 30 years we’ve moved from 7,000 to 17 million CSA images”. It was also highlighted that more than 850 offenders are being apprehended a month, and that more than 1000 children have been safeguarded each month through coordinated activity led by professionals like Mr Bailey.

Little girl with head in hand as she scrolls through an iPad while sitting at a table

This webinar highlights that online child sexual abuse is a crime that is not going to reduce any time soon.  In her closing comments, Mary Aiken, Professor of Forensic Cyberpsychology in the Department of Law and Criminology at the University of East London, argued: “Online CSA is a big data problem in terms of variety, velocity and volume of this content and we will need artificial intelligence solutions to tackle the problem.”

There is some good news, Aiken claims: “There is a thriving emerging online safety technology sector in the UK.” However, cyber security focuses on protecting data, networks and systems and not what it is to be human, online. Therefore, events such as this webinar bring together experts working in the field of child protection to present the research evidence and the reliable data needed to fully understand this complex phenomenon. 

Some of the evidence, advice and recommendations presented in this webinar cannot be ignored. The fact that more than 700 hundred people registered for this event demonstrates that people are willing to be involved in this subject, want to learn good practice, raise awareness and contribute to the online safety of children and young people.

 Indeed, we need to work together to create a safer cyber space for us all, but specifically for those young people whose lives are digital by default.

The UKCIS Evidence Group provides expert advice to the UKCIS Board and reviews key research in the Internet safety area. They produce a research highlights series which summarises research findings.

About the author

Dr Elena Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. She has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena and her research includes exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse.

Dr Martellozzo is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. She has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004) Bahrain (2016) and the Rwandan Government (2019) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Coronavirus and COVID-19 Health & wellbeing Social commentary

Cash for kink: the online risky sexual behaviour by young women during COVID pandemic

Dr Elena Martellozzo and Paula Bradbury of the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies examine the impact OnlyFans has had on young women during the coronavirus pandemic.

The existence of OnlyFans predates the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown of 2020, but its popularity and notoriety increased significantly over the last year. OnlyFans came to our attention through celebrity endorsements, other social media platforms, and apps. Notably, there was also the BBC Three documentary entitled Nudes4Sale.

This British investigative documentary revealed how thousands of people across the world – including celebrities, ordinary members of the public and, more concerningly, teenagers – are making a healthy profit from selling self-generated sexual content for cash through the platform OnlyFans. On OnlyFans you earn money by gaining member subscriptions and by generating content that people want to pay for. The girls featured in the documentary reported to be earning as much as £35,000 in a single month. We now know that potential earning figures go way beyond this.

A woman wearing a t-shirt looking at a laptop. Photo cropped so the woman's head is no visible

But these kinds of successes are unique, and only experienced by the few – leaving a significant number vulnerable to a darker side of OnlyFans, and the manipulative and predatory behaviours of individuals that operate within it.

With a fast-growing subscription of more than 200,000 new members every 24 hours, it’s easy to see how enthusiastic endorsements by the likes of Beyoncé and Cardi B make OnlyFans an attractive site for young women.

What the endorsements don’t show, though, is that OnlyFans is a fiercely competitive market where young women fall into a cycle: they are compelled to raise their game by sharing more and more of their bodies, and perform sexual acts requested by subscribers to maintain their interest, increase their popularity and earn more money.

The women in the Nudes4Sale documentary had all received messages from subscribers asking them to participate in offline sex acts. One of the girls interviewed in the documentary, Lauren, admitted that she received messages offering £5,000 for sex. While Lauren can afford to say no, many less successful young women – potentially young teenage girls – cannot. And so, they’re lured into danger with the promise of money.

And during a pandemic, having an income is more crucial than ever.

“It’s impossible to say precisely how lockdown is impacting our behaviour and what the side effects will be”, said Anne Marie Tomchak, in her recent piece in Glamour,  “but there are already indications that more nudes are being requested and sent during this time as people increase their digital interactions while staying at home, and OnlyFans reports a spike in activity.”

OnlyFans sparked a global media response to rising concerns of adolescent online risk-taking, and the legal ramifications of creating, distributing and possessing sexual images of a minor – laws which children themselves are no less impervious to.

A 2020 report published by the IWF revealed that they have identified a 44% increase (of all intercepted content) in the number of self-generated indecent images produced by children, of which the most prolific age group is girls between 11 and 13.

COVID-19 and child protection

The COVID-19 global pandemic has not only revealed our vulnerabilities to biological viral threats, but also to our ability to protect our children online.

In the midst of lockdown, COVID-19 has facilitated a greater opportunity for digital immersion. While the internet opens up a plethora of positive opportunities for individual growth and self-acceptance, there is also the potential for great harm to be caused against the most vulnerable in our communities; children and young people.

Immature cognitive development and reduced capacity to self-regulate has left children at risk from criminal accountability, sexual predators, and the dark side of the online sex industry (Naezer, 2018). With the easy opportunity to view pornography and violent content at the click of a button, there’s also the easy opportunity to produce it, and sell it to those with a sexual predilection in children (IWF, 2020).

In 2021, the online marketplace for sharing sexual images for cash is no longer dominated by the sex industry and adult sex workers. It is a phenomenon that goes beyond regulation, and is being dominated by teenagers as purveyors for their self-production of nude, semi-nude, on-demand kink images and videos for online clients.

Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said:  “We are concerned that there are risks to be associated with user-generated explicit abuse content sites, such as Only Fans, which are worthy of substantive academic focus. This relates to children being readily able to access inappropriate and sexually explicit content, both on the site itself but also as a result of user generated content being posted as ‘trailers’ to social networks.”

What can parents do?

We would encourage all parents to familiarise themselves with social media, particularly those platforms which are popular with young people. Don’t assume that your teen will not visit sites such as OnlyFans.

Parents need to be aware that social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat are the most commonly used platforms for sex offenders to target and groom children, at a rate of 37% of recorded cases for Instagram alone (NSPCC, 2020).

Tiktok has aggressively responded to the high volume of Onlyfans members who prolifically use their platform to advertise links to their accounts and content by introducing stricter community guidelines, but as the authors have seen, a large volume falls beneath the radar which includes sexually explicit information about sex acts, fetishes and violence. Many Onlyfans members simply create a new account once removed.

If you discover that your child is actively engaging with such sites, don’t make them feel guilty. It’s not your child’s fault. Children often visit such sites through peer pressure, general curiosity or simply by accident. However, do prevent them from accessing it in future. It may not make you a popular parent, but it’s what needs to be done to keep your child safe, online and offline. We recommend the following:

  • If you don’t have a filter on your child’s laptop or home computer already, make sure you get one as soon as you can
  • Browse your teen’s tracking history. If you see OnlyFans on there, that’s a red flag
  • Scan your credit card for any charges that look like they may be from OnlyFans
  • If you suspect your teen has been on the site, have an honest discussion with them about online safety
  • Talk to your teen, in general, about the damaging effects of pornography
  • Make sure your child understands that they never know who they’re talking to online, and that by sharing personal information they’re putting themselves at risk.

Martellozzo et al (2020) found that stumbling across inappropriate content can have significant adverse impacts for children and young people. This includes distorting their view of sex and relationships, and potentially having a desensitising effect for some young people.

Online pornography is increasingly widely identified as an influence on children’s and young people’s sexual lives (Crabbe & Flood, 2021) . Whether we like or not, pornography is recognised as an important part of young people’s sexual socialisation and deserves to be addressed with young people. The existence of sites such as OnlyFans should be included in the discussions.

About the authors

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. She has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena, and her research includes exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse.

Dr Martellozzo is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. She has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004), Bahrain (2016) and the Rwandan Government (2019) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework.

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Paula Bradbury

Paula Bradbury

Paula Bradbury is a Criminology Lecturer and Doctoral Researcher within the School of Law at Middlesex University, exploring the appropriateness of current policy and practice relating to adolescent sexual offending and sexual behaviour between peers. She is passionate about researching online sexual offending behaviour and child abuse.

Paula is an active member of the CATS team engaging in multiple research pathways to combat child sexual abuse both online and offline as a mixed methods researcher proficient in both quantitative and qualitative analysis, and project management. She is also the National Child Sexual Abuse Lead for Victim Support, serving as a project manager developing online support content for adult survivors or child sexual abuse. 

Twitter: @PB_Cybercrime

Health & wellbeing Social commentary

Life is digital by default – what’s the impact on young people’s mental health?

An online webinar brought together leading clinical and academic experts to discuss the impact in the rise of technology on the mental health of children and young people. This event, which was chaired by Middlesex University Criminologist Dr Elena Martellozzo, was organised by the UK Council for Internet Safety Evidence Group (UKCIS) and supported by the UKRI Mental Health Network (eNurture) and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

 “The last decade has seen a startling level of technological innovation,” said Professor Sonia Livingstone OBE, eNurture Network Deputy Director.

 “We’ve moved, I’d suggest, from seeing technology as a valued addition to our lives, to seeing technology as its vital infrastructure and as COVID-19 has made that really clear now, for young people especially, life is digital by default.”

As technology becomes a crucial part of our everyday, what is the impact on the mental health of children and young people? The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have seen children and young people off school for large periods and spending even more time online, either learning, playing or socialising.

“Being online can be a hugely positive experience for adults, children and young people, however it is also presents a risk of harm and there is growing concern about the relationship between technology and the mental health of children and young people,” explained Rachel Bishop, the Deputy Director of Online Harms Policy at DCMS.

“The pandemic has brought this into sharp focus with children’s screen time averaging nine hours per day during lockdown which is nearly double the average prior to COVID-19 (according to the Pandemic Parenting Report).

A study by Ofcom has found that children were lacking structure and routine, and were instead spending a large amount of time online often unsupervised. While screen based online platforms can support learning, social networks and reduce feelings of loneliness, they can also impact mood, self-esteem and body image as a result of extended or prolonged time engaged with screens.”

Image of a small child light up by a blue screen in bed with parents who are in the dark

Mental health crisis among young people

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, Chair of Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Royal College of Psychiatrists presented some insightful data on the mental health crisis among young people in the United Kingdom. She argues that this is rising significantly alongside the growing reliance on technology.

In 2020, one in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental disorder increasing from one in nine (10.8%) in 2017, according to The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report. The increase was evident in boys and girls. The rate has risen in boys aged 5 to 16 from 11.4% in 2017 to 16.7% in July 2020 and in girls from 10.3% to 15.2% over the same time period.

Negative impact of social media

The Good Childhood report, 2020 concluded that among 24 countries reviewed UK adolescence between 10 and 15 years are doing least well. The NHS Digital Prevalence Survey, 2018 of children aged 11 to 19 showed those with disorders were much more impacted by social media.

For example nearly 42% with mental health disorders compared to 25% without compared themselves to others; 27.2% with disorders compared to nearly 14% without admitted that likes, shares and people’s comments affected their mood; 66.6% with disorders compared to 52.8% without spent more time than they meant to online.

Children and young people with mental health problems are often turning for help because of content on social media.

Victoria Hornby, CEO of Mental Health Innovations which runs the 24-7 crisis helpline Shout, said suicide deaths of celebrities “spark anxiety among young people” so they share support services. “Within 15 minutes of the death of Caroline Flack we were beginning to see a significant increase in volume on our platform,” she argued.

The National Suicide Study in children and young people also found teenagers in particular were “more profoundly affected” by suicide related internet use.

Too much screen time can damage development

The negative impact of too much screen time on young people’s development has also been well documented.  The review paper the Online Brain, How the Internet maybe changing your cognition concluded “excessive Internet use impairs brain and verbal development”, “mass acceptable/rejection/social comparisons affects self-esteem” and “media multi-tasking affects attention and memory”.

The World Health Organisation recommends limiting screen time for children aged one to four to one hour per day, stating the “potential benefit of reducing sedentary screen time outweighs the possible harms/costs & may increase health equity”.

This may seem extreme but technological use starts at a very early age. A third of patients referred to NHS England’s National Centre for Gaming Disorders started gaming aged six years or younger, according to its founder Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, OBE. She said many of the patients were “very thin or obese”, with “poor eating habits, self-care and little exercise”, and suffered from loss self-esteem, social anxiety, low mood, poor regulation of boredom and attachment issues, with gaming providing “escapism, connection, communication and acceptance, achievement”.

“Half of the children turned violent, sometimes very violent when things were taken away which stopped them from gaming, in some families the police were called 20 or 30 times. I had underestimated the terrible impact on families,” said Dr Bowden-Jones.

What happens next?

What can be done to tackle the detrimental effect of too much screen time and technology on the mental health and wellbeing and children and their families?

Rachel Bishop of DCMS said its plans for online harms legislation will ensure companies are more “responsible for people’s safety online, especially children” alongside the Government will publish its response shortly to the white paper – the Adult Online Hate, Harassment and Abuse assessment – with legislation following next year, which will be accompanied by non-legislative initiatives including a media literacy strategy and safety by design framework.

To the question  If there was one thing that you would change about the digital world, what would that be? posed by Dr Graham Richard, Psychiatrist & Clinical Director, Good Thinking, Dr Dubicka answered:

“Global togetherness on technology, regulation, safety and responsibility from the tech companies, as we have seen for climate change.”

Research and guidance is essential

Victoria Hornby also provided an insightful response: “We need to have much clearer signposting of safe sources for help. We have young people who regularly contact us saying ‘I did an online quiz to see if I have depression or an eating disorder’ and the random searching with completely unfiltered content can be damaging for children.”

Literacy on the impact of technology on mental health is crucial. “The digital world will not go away and it’s only when we get guidance and knowledge which helps parents, professionals and young people directly, that we will advance this whole debate,” commented Professor Gordon Harold, Professor of the Psychology of Education and Mental Health at the University of Cambridge and eNurture Director.

Further research into the impact of technology on mental health is also essential. The Nurture Network (eNurture) is a UKRI funded programme, which supported this event and has seven associated networks, is funding start up research projects and practical interventions designed to examine how the digital world is changing and its impact on young people.

The academic and clinical experts all agree that there must be an onus on technological companies as well to address concerns about the impact of their technology on young people’s mental health.

Dr Mark Griffiths, the Director of the International Gaming Unit at Nottingham Trent University, said structural characteristic such as the ‘Like’ button on social media or the event frequency in gambling, are really important in determining whether someone will have a problem.  

“If you’ve got a product and you know a small minority of your clientele are going to have a problem with it, you have to take responsibility,” argued Dr Griffiths.

“The great thing about technology, is we can actually harness that technology to help treat those people who unfortunately do suffer from problematic or addictive behaviours.”

Written by Paul Harper, Middlesex University Press Officer, and Elena Martellozzo, Middlesex University Criminologist.

Social commentary

Sit, stand or take a knee: Symbolic acts and anti-racism

Rima Saini, MDX Sociology lecturer, discusses the political history and wide-reaching symbolism of ‘taking a knee’ and its current relationship with genuine anti-racist progress.

When Colin Kaepernick chose to take a knee instead of sit during the national anthem of a San Francisco 49ers game in August 2016, he made the bold but controversial decision to clearly and unequivocally communicate his opposition to police brutality and anti-Blackness in front of the country, and eventually the world.

Standing during the national anthem is widely held as a symbol of respect for country and flag (a rule of conduct institutionalising patriotic acts but not necessarily enshrined in law), but there is a glaring hypocrisy to this in the US given the long history of disenfranchisement and criminalisation of marginalised populations.

Little did Kaepernick know that the police themselves – the police who many went on to virulently defend after his act – would also be kneeling nearly four years later alongside others in widespread global protest movements following the murder of George Floyd and countless other Black citizens at the hands of US police.

The history of ‘take a knee’

Martin Luther King Jr and fellow civil rights activists famously kneeled during marches in the 1960s as a form of prayer alongside non-violent resistance. Most notably in 1965, when protestors were arrested during a voter registration drive for African Americans in Dallas County, Alabama.

Along with bowing and prostration, kneeling plays a key a role in all religious traditions as an act of reverence and submission during worship. Some have likened Kaepernick’s kneeling to an evangelical act, tapping into the Christian roots of conservative and liberal America alike. The dignity inherent in this act by virtue of its sheer simplicity and its historical, spiritual connotations itself was at sharp contrast with the vitriol he received from President Trump who, still now, deems kneeling unacceptable and inherently, although arguably, anti-American.

There are written and pictorial records of slaves kneeling preceding the 20th century. A kneeling, Black male slave with his hands in chains was the defining symbol of the British abolitionist movement (Savage 1997; Nelson 2004), making its way, not unproblematically, to personal ornaments, artefacts, medallions and other pieces of propaganda purchased by anti-slavery proponents in the establishment.

Anti-racist symbolism and ‘performative wokeness’

‘Taking a knee’ has a complex recent political history. Multiple US policeman knelt on George Floyd’s neck, UK anti-racist protestors kneeled on the neck of the statue of slave trader and Tory MP Edward Colston in Bristol earlier this month (June 2020), and policeman across Europe and the US have been filmed kneeling on Black Lives Matter protestors.

One political act can thus encapsulate a world of dynamic meaning. Nonetheless, the simplicity of such acts encompasses both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness, particularly with the increasing and largely superficial institutional capture of ‘viral’ social and political movements by profit-making companies and brands.

Colin Kaepernick kneeled during a patriotic act in the face of hypocrisy between hollow nationalism and the lived reality of marginalised Americans. However, many argue that the appropriation of kneeling policeman and armed guards is the ultimate hypocrisy. Whereas it has been framed as a symbol of hope and humility, others have argued that appropriation of the symbolic act is tantamount to ideological and political pacification, and does little to communicate a genuine commitment to overturning structural discrimination within the police, perhaps giving the impression that the sharing of the act itself was the initial aim.

Alongside media blackouts of luxury brand firms, stylised shots of celebrities with ‘Black Lives Matter’ placards, social media challenges where company owners are tasked with quantifying the distribution of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) staff in their firms, and cringeworthy recorded videos of celebrities declaring ‘I take responsibility’, where and how can we demarcate genuine solidarity and political identity formation from capitalist performativity?

Dilution through appropriation of a symbolic act rids of it of its status as call to arms. It therefore matters who is doing it, why and where and indeed, depending on one’s own positionality, other acts can prove far more fruitful, such as a relatively socioeconomically privileged individual donating money or time or other resources to key causes.

Political progress beyond ‘taking a knee’

‘Taking a knee’ should communicate an individual’s political commitment to centre, if they have not been doing so far, Blackness. The accusations levied at Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have been ones of empty virtue signalling. The shadow political elite have been accused of this not only in faux-solidaristic responses to the protests but in their reactionary responses to the elusive BAME coronavirus safeguarding plan, post-public outcry. Members of the current UK cabinet, like Dominic Raab, are at least far more clear cut about their misapprehension and ignorance about the meaning of the act.

With the wholesale silencing of Black voices and lived experiences in academia, politics, the media, and so on, a physical rather than a speech act can prove subversively powerful. However, now that ‘take a knee’ has entered the lexicon, it perhaps better communicates the ideological as well as the action-based implications of anti-racist solidarity.

When Black activists and scholars say ‘take a knee’, they mean, somewhat ironically, ‘take a stand’ in educating yourself in how you can challenge White supremacy and claim allyship. The educative conversations and political discourse around the act, therefore, are incredibly important.

The sharing of resources and causes has gone some way to communicating the sheer level of, often ‘behind the scenes’, anti-racist work that has been underway for years. It also provides a valuable insight into the lack of understanding and engagement from now ‘woke’, but hopefully, eventually better educated, individuals in positions of power.

Social commentary

Refugee Week: What can we do for refugee children?

Erminia Colucci, Associate Professor in Visual and Cultural Psychology at MDX looks at the growing number of child refugees and the perilous journey they face to escape their own countries.

The prevalence and persistence of religious, racial, political and other forms of persecution, conflict, generalised violence, and human rights violations  in the twenty-first century has seen millions of people flee their countries of origin. Many seek permanent protection, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).

The flow continues and global forced displacement has increased in 2015, with record-high numbers. The UNHCR states by the end of 2020, 65.3 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide. This is an increase of more than 50% in five years and are the highest levels of forced displacement since the aftermath of the World War II.

Growing number of child refugees

Among the millions of people who have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe, one striking feature has been the growing number of children. In June 2015, one in ten of the refugees and migrants was a child and by the end of December it was one in three, according to UNICEF.

In some places, children make up 40% of the asylum-seeking population.  This sums up to currently between 20 and 30 million children and adolescents being forcibly displaced and in need of asylum worldwide. The number of unaccompanied or separated children seeking asylum on an individual basis has increased significantly over recent years, reaching the highest levels since the UNCHR started systematically collecting this data.

Throughout Europe, these unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) are exposed to a contentious institutional conflict; they are treated according to their asylum seeking/refugee status and not primarily as children and adolescents in need of protection during a crucial developmental period.

Easy prey for traffickers and smugglers

A 2016 report by UNICEF-France recorded the plight of unaccompanied children who were living in a number of different camps in northern France and along the coast of the English Channel. As highlighted by this report, throughout their journeys, refugee children suffer poor living conditions and are an easy prey for smugglers and traffickers as well as other powerful adults.

Unaccompanied and separated children are particularly at high risk of exploitation, violence and abuse. UNICEF observed:

“Most of the children who reach Europe come in search of safety and protection, and with the hope of a better future. But reaching Europe does not bring an end to the dangers they face.”

The report also identified practices involving the exchange of sexual services for the promise of passage to the UK or to pay for or speed up their journey. Boys and girls are regularly sexually abused, often by traffickers and their friends. There have also been recordings of children being exploited on cannabis farms in the UK, in Strasbourg and in Paris.

The situation reported in France is not isolated and similar accounts of exploitation and abuse (including sexual assaults committed against both girls and boys) have been reported also in studies in the UK. Findings have also included experiences of neglect, abuse and exploitation at the hands of humanitarian workers and foster carers who were charged with protecting and assisting these children.

The rising global burden of forced migration in the Mediterranean territories is a major social challenge that is increasingly recognised as an urgent issue in international public health and in global and cultural mental health.

Refugee children and young people have been identified as a group with particularly high vulnerability for mental health problems and to suicidal behaviour, due to their experiences of trauma, exposure to violence (whether individually experienced, witnessed or feared), forced migration, stressors associated with their resettlement journey (particularly post-migration detention), experiences of insecurity at a formative stage of child development and other factors.

Risk of mental health problems

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) have been shown to be at higher risk of emotional and behavioural problems, anxiety and depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. A number of the UASC interviewed for the UNICEF report expressed the need to be hospitalised in a psychiatric ward following instances of ‘mental breakdown’ and aggressive and violent episodes directed towards themselves or other young people.

A recent report from Medicine Sans Frontiers (MSF) and Save The Children International (SCI) have indicated that child refugees on Lesbos (Greece) are increasingly self-harming or having suicidal thoughts and behaviours linked with the deteriorating conditions in the camp and access to medical care.

Save the Children developing suicide prevention tools

Save the Children has officially recognised child and youth suicide as an unspoken issue in humanitarian context and published a cry for help disclosing the devastating impact of the EU-Turkey deal on child refugees and migrants.

SCI has, in fact, started developing suicide prevention protocols and training. I am honoured to have recently started providing their staff who are working with children in conflict afflicted areas, gatekeeper training based on the Suicide First Aid Guidelines, for people from immigrant and refugee backgrounds.

Yet, in spite of the increase of UASC refugees, research on their experiences of exploitation and abuse during their journeys, what is in place to protect them and, later, to provide support and help, is very limited.

This means that while high-income countries of resettlement such as France, UK and Australia, have introduced mental health and psychosocial support policies and programmes for children and young people, these are based on limited evidence.

More research needed to help vulnerable children

A review by Lancet on displaced and refugee children indicated the need for research into specific groups of children such as trafficked children, community and social contexts affecting their experiences and mental health outcomes, as well as the impact of specific types of exposures to abuse and violence.

In particular, more research is required to document (also by means of visual methods), understand and improve the mechanisms (e.g. structures, agencies and adult figures) in place throughout the refugee journeys to protect these resilient but vulnerable children from exploitation and abuse, complementing the work carried out by agencies such as Humans for Rights.

Applied and activist research is needed to develop and provide socio-culturally relevant and adequate psychosocial and mental health support (including suicide prevention) to those children and young people who have experienced abuse/violence and exploitation along these journeys.

Erminia is happy to supply a bibliography of references used in this post if required. Please email:

For support and information in UK

Social commentary

Policing reform in the age of Black Lives Matter

Dr Angus Nurse, Associate Professor and Director of Policing Programmes at MDX, discusses whether the suggested police reforms and polices will make a real difference or if more needs to be done.

As outrage over the killing of George Floyd continues during June 2020 and looks to stay in the news for some time, calls for policing reform have gathered momentum. 

The reform debate is mainly focused on addressing police brutality in the US which protesters say is indicated by the use of dehumanising restraint techniques such as chokeholds, excessive use of force and practices such as ‘no knock warrants’ that had fatal consequences in the case of Breonna Taylor who was shot dead in March 2020 after police raided the wrong address.

People hold protest signs in front of a line of armed police in riot gear

Campaigners argue that ‘extreme’ policing techniques are disproportionately used against the black community and reflect negative ideas of policing against a community rather than the notion of policing as being to protect and serve.

The rallying cry of ‘defund the police’ speaks to the frustration of a failure to recognise and address what is seen as abuse or misuse of police powers. It also identifies how many black citizens feel that issues of race and justice are ignored. After all, while many public institutions are now professing to support Black Lives Matter, the movement was founded in 2013 after Trayvon Martin. was fatally shot in 2012. Florida resident George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder or manslaughter, and news reports at the time highlighted how the case raised issues of racial profiling of black citizens as criminals.

During the period from 2013 to today, and even following George Floyd’s death, the killing of black citizens by law enforcement has continued.  Campaigners in the US and elsewhere claim that this indicates that past attempts at reform have failed and that there is now an urgent need for more extensive policing reform. 

But any attempt at reform is doomed to fail unless it is also accompanied by an understanding of systemic racism in society and how public institutions frequently act to maintain the status quo. 

Proposals repeating history

Reform proposals are already under discussion, if not underway in the US.  The Democratic police reform bill dubbed the ‘Justice in Policing Act’ unveiled in June 2020 by Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Members of the Black Caucus in the US aims to ban chokeholds like the type used by police to subdue George Floyd.  It also aims to end the process of ‘no-knock’ warrants, which has been criticised by some commentators and councils, and create a better process for identifying and dealing with police misconduct or excessive use of force. 

On 16 June 2020, President Trump signed an Executive Order on Safe Policing that on the face of it limits the use of chokeholds, and will lead to a database on police misconduct which could also lead to new legislation to improve police practices. All of these measures sound reasonable in the light of the ongoing outcry about the death of black citizens at the hands of the police.

But really, we have been here before.

After the beating of Rodney King by police officers was caught on camera in 1991, riots took place in Los Angeles after the police officers involved were acquitted. Calls for police reform were also heard following the LA riots and were heard again following the deaths of Eric Garner in 2014, the shooting of Michael Brown, and following the Ferguson protests in August 2014.

Earlier deaths of unarmed black citizens at the hands of police also resulted in Black Lives Matter activists highlighting the widespread nature of problematic policing. Not least the apparently persistent failure of disciplinary measures to take action when unarmed black citizens are killed by police. Yet many of the reforms put in place since Rodney King, including some of the progressive attempts by the Obama administration, to improve police oversight appear to have been rolled back in recent years.

What the Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd protests has identified is that while there may be widespread agreement that change is needed, especially after video evidence emerges of black citizens being killed, meaningful reform has been slow to emerge.

What’s the hold-up?

The underlying issue is possibly one of attitudes to black citizens which potentially reflect systematic racism within society.  This is something that is frequently denied by Government and politicians who may not be exposed to what is a fact of life for many black citizens.

This is not solely an American problem. Figures on the apparent disproportionate use of police stop and search powers against black citizens in the UK, the disproportionate representation of black youth in criminal justice processes identified by the Lammy Review, and data on the deaths of aboriginal citizens in police and prison custody in Australia paint a widespread picture of poor treatment of black citizens by western justice systems. 

The 2017 UK Angioloni Report into deaths and serious incidents in police custody identified that ‘there is evidence of disproportionate deaths of BAME people in restraint related deaths’. The report recognised that any death involving a BAME victim who died following the use of force can provoke community disquiet leading to a lack of public confidence and trust in the justice system. The report made several recommendations including some concerning police use of restraint techniques and improving the monitoring, safety and scrutiny of police custody environments. It also recommended improvements to the investigation of deaths in police custody in England and Wales.

Previously calls for police reform in the UK have followed high profile incidents such as the 1981 Brixton Riots and the Scarman report or the finding of institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999.

The reality is that some policing reforms have already taken place but these have not been considered effective. Campaigners in both the UK and the US point to underlying problems in attitudes to black citizens and in scrutiny and accountability mechanisms when force is used. If reforms are to be meaningful and effective they need to target not just the symptoms of problematic justice practices but also their cause.  

A reform of attitudes

Police reform is a complex area.  It is not as simple as saying that policing is inherently racist or that white police officers kill black citizens and the evidence may not always support that simplistic view.  But the evidence does indicate a persistent and ongoing problem in how black communities are policed that has now been a subject of debate for decades and has not been resolved. 

As a result, reforms need to consider not just specific policing practices that have tragic consequences and attract attention.  They must also address issues of unconscious bias and attitudes towards black citizens that risk viewing them as inherently criminal. They must consider use of force and its appropriateness in different situations. They must also ensure the creation, enforcement and monitoring of accountability measures designed to view racism and disproportionate treatment of black citizens as serious misconduct. 

Coronavirus and COVID-19 Social commentary

Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response

MDX academics have collaborated with 36 scholars from all over the world to create a review of what social and behavioural sciences can do to protect and promote physical and mental health during a pandemic.

Social and behavioural sciences can support efforts to identify effective public health messages, encourage compliance with government directives, design institutional responses that are well-calibrated to human behaviour, sustain prosocial motivations in large, disconnected societies, manage anxiety and loneliness, identify cultural factors that can minimise the spread of the virus and motivate compassion for, and costly actions that benefit, vulnerable groups.

The current paper reviews insights derived from several particularly relevant areas of research in the social and behavioural sciences. For each of these areas, we highlight relevant findings, derive insights of potential use to policy makers, leaders, and the general public, and highlight areas where future research is needed.

Navigating threat

This first section discusses how people perceive and respond to threats during a pandemic and the downstream consequences for decision-making and intergroup relations.

Pandemics are often associated with rampant cases of discrimination and cases of individual assault, especially against outgroups. But pandemics may also offer opportunities to reduce distances. For example, 21 countries donated medical supplies to China in February, and China has reciprocated. Government officials can highlight events like these to improve out-group attitudes.

The media typically focus on the percentage of people who die, and less so on those who survive. Providing the opposite frame may help to educate the public and relieve some people’s feelings of panic.

To allow people to work with each other rather than against each other, the key factor is the emergence of a sense of shared identity which leads people to be concerned and care for others. It can be encouraged by addressing the public in collective terms and by urging us to act for the common good.

Social and cultural factors

This section reviews how social and cultural factors can affect response to the pandemic, and how this can be used to protect and promote healthy behavior.

People are influenced by perceptions of norms, especially when they come from people with whom they share identity. Messages that provide in-group models for norms (e.g. members of your community) may be most effective.

The spread of COVID-19 will tighten communities. A critical question is whether loose societies (UK, USA, Italy) will adapt quickly to the virus. Countries accustomed to prioritising freedom over security may have more difficulty coordinating in the face of a pandemic. We describe some of these issues in the section on social support and coping below.

Science communication

This section discusses the challenges associated with different types of misinformation during a pandemic as well as strategies for engaging in effective science communication and persuasion around public health.

People are more drawn to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs are frustrated. Conspiracy theories can have harmful consequences; belief in conspiracy theories has been linked to vaccine hesitancy, climate denial, extremist political views, and prejudice. Some evidence suggests that inoculating people with factual information prior to exposure can reduce the impact of conspiracy theories.

Fake news about COVID-19 has proliferated widely. One approach is to debunk using fact-checking and correction. However, these may not keep up with the vast amount of false information. One prebunking approach involves psychological inoculation. For example, preemptively exposing people to small doses of misinformation techniques or providing subtle prompts that emphasise accuracy.

Other approaches that increase the likelihood of the information being understood: credibility of the source, messages focusing on the benefits to the recipient, aligning message with recipient’s moral values. For health issues, there is some evidence that a focus on protecting others can be more effective (e.g. “wash your hands to protect your parents and grandparents”).

Moral decision-making

In this section, we consider how research on morality and co-operation can encourage prosocial behaviours.

Moral decision-making during a pandemic involves uncertainty. Research suggests people are more risk-averse when their decisions affect others compared to themselves, suggesting that focusing on risks to others (rather than oneself) may be more effective in convincing individuals to practice public health behaviors. Research shows also that focusing on worst-case scenarios, even if they are uncertain, can encourage people to make sacrifices for others.

Fighting a global pandemic requires large-scale co-operation. Sanctioning defectors or rewarding co-operators typically promote co-operation but are costly. Cheaper techniques can include providing cues that make the morality of an action salient or providing cues suggesting that other people are already co-operating.

Moral elevation is the feeling of being uplifted and inspired by others’ prosocial, selfless acts, and this experience prompts observers to also act with kindness and generosity themselves. Thus, exceptional role models can motivate people to put their own values into action.


Crises create a strong demand for leadership and this demand is present in all the groups to which we belong; our family, our local community, our workplace, and our nation. What should leaders do?

The first responsibility of leaders in times of crisis is to set aside personal or partisan interests and cultivate an inclusive sense of “us”.

Solidarity within and between nations is critical during a global pandemic. The belief in national greatness can be maladaptive in a number of ways. For instance, it is likely to promote greater focus on protecting the image of the country, rather than on caring for its citizens.

Stress and coping

Distancing threatens to produce an epidemic of loneliness. There are strategies to mitigate these outcomes.

We suggest the term “social distancing” be replaced when possible with “physical distancing”, to highlight that deep social connection with a broader community is possible even when people are physically apart through the use of technology.

Major stressors alter the trajectories of our intimate relationships. Divorce rates typically surge, but also marriage and birth rates. People should calibrate expectations for the relationship to the circumstances. Continuing to expect the same level of excitement and adventure from the relationship is a recipe for disappointment.

It is important to instill adaptive mindsets, guiding individuals towards the mindsets that this illness is manageable, their bodies are capable, and that this can be an opportunity to make positive changes in the world.


Van Bavel, J. J., Baicker, K., Boggio, P., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Crockett, M., … Willer, R. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behaviour.