The most recent helpline data covers the period from January to March 2020 inclusive. It is important to note that, for most countries, any lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic only impacted on the last few weeks of data. The next set of data, covering the period from April to June 2020, will undoubtedly give some more detailed insights into the impact of lockdown on helpline trends. There have already been many reports from Europol, UNICEF and others which have highlighted the challenges for children and young people in lockdown and, while the internet has proved to be a lifeline for many during the pandemic so far, it is still being misused. It would appear there has been a proliferation in scams, phishing attacks, fake news and the sharing of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), and the impact of this is likely to be seen for some time to come.
The helpline network has met regularly online over recent months to discuss the impact of COVID-19 and some of the findings and experiences from these discussions are shared briefly below.
During the first three months of 2020 the network received 14,925 contacts which shows a significant increase on the previous reporting period (13,201). At the beginning of April, when data was submitted, some helplines reported no significant increase in contacts while others said the opposite. It is worth noting, however, that this reporting period saw the highest number of contacts for the past four years.
A total of 42 per cent of contacts were from males during this period; a slight rise of two percentage points on the previous period . As usual, the vast majority of calls (61 per cent) were from the teenage group (12-18-year olds).
Typically, the most popular way to contact a helpline is by phone but many helplines have reported that the number of phone calls that they have received during lockdown has reduced significantly. There is general agreement that the reason for this is that it can be difficult for some children and young people to find a private space where they are able to make a phone call to a helpline and be sure that they will not be overheard. Sadly, some young people may be confined at home with the person who is causing them the problem and so speaking to someone about the issue and risking being overheard is not an option. Interestingly, the percentage of phone calls fell by 15 percentage points between Quarter 4 of 2019 and Quarter 1 of 2020. While COVID-19 will have had some impact on this, the drop is significant. The number of contacts made by email or via an online form both increased during this reporting period (by three and seven per cent respectively) and, of course, it makes sense that these electronic means of communication are perhaps more secure when discussing sensitive issues.
As usual, the main reason for contacting helplines was cyberbullying with almost 17 per cent of all calls relating to this. The percentages of calls concerning other issues remained largely unchanged from previous reporting periods with only some slight fluctuations.
With regards to COVID-19, the helpline network stepped up and continued to provide a vital service that has been needed more in the last few months than perhaps ever before, with an increasing number of people recognising the benefits of being online during lockdown but perhaps encountering more issues and risks. Some helplines report that chats are taking longer with callers coming back several times for further advice, guidance and support. Helplines have also reported an increase in calls about domestic abuse situations, mental health concerns, and also a rise in calls concerning sextortion.
At the time of writing, as lockdown is starting to lift across Europe, helplines report that they are already seeing a reduction in calls and that things are "getting back to normal". Whatever the coming weeks and months may hold, Insafe helplines will continue to provide their vital services and it's essential that as many people as possible are aware of their existence.
Helpline statistics can be accessed in detail at www.betterinternetforkids.eu/helpline-statistics, where country comparisons can also be made.