Some children 'may be at risk of online harm' during pandemic

Banardo's said child protection must be prioritised Credit: UTV

Isolated children may be at more risk of online harm during the pandemic, aleading support charity in Northern Ireland has warned.

Vulnerable youngsters and increased internet traffic during lockdown is apotentially dangerous combination, said Michele Janes, who heads Barnardo's in Northern Ireland.

It is the largest charity of its kind in the country and helps more than 12,000children, young people and their families every year.

Ms Janes said: "There are cases of children who have gotten into conversations and situations that are really dangerous.

"When a child is isolated, lonely and vulnerable, they are more likely to talkto someone that you or I would not want coming into the house.

"People don't come into houses through the front door, they come through the telephone line and down a satellite signal, and that is really risky."

The charity helps children and young people who experience the care system, young people who are sexually abused, children who struggle with poor mental health, and refugee or newcomer families.

It has expressed concerns around child protection issues not being identifiedand referred to the appropriate agencies since schools closed during lockdown.

Ms Janes said the proliferation of new digital platforms for communicatingposes challenges.

"People are trying to work from home while monitoring what their children are doing at the same time.

"People need to stay in touch with who their children are talking to.

"Friends used to be someone you went to school with. Friends for our children nowadays are people they meet online."

She said if someone is isolated and vulnerable they are more likely to talk,potentially to the wrong kind of people.

Barnardo's said social distancing measures can exacerbate feelings ofloneliness and isolation, leading to chronic loneliness which can impact onlong-term mental and physical health and well-being.

Ms Janes added: "We are worried about children and young people and families in all of those areas and we need to think big picture about what happens next and the planning for whenever we exit lockdown or things get back to normal.

"We need to have safe spaces available to them to get the help that theyneed."

The charity has expressed concern that more families were being pulled intopoverty due to job losses or increased financial pressures.

It said child protection must be prioritised and mental health support andaccess to counselling should continue after the pandemic.

It also urged extra help for families affected by poverty due to the economiccrisis and warned the pandemic threatened the existence of charities.

"Funding security, including longer-term commissioning, is needed to ensurethe vital services delivered by the third sector can continue to address thelegacy of the pandemic in years to come."