Analysis for the recently-published NSPCC report ‘How safe are our children?’, suggests we can use evidence from neuroscience about how teenagers’ brains develop to inform practices that can keep them safe and happy.

The flagship NSPCC report – which is a compendium of data about the scale of abuse against adolescents and which reveals, for the first time, that lockdown has put many at greater risk of harm – features contributions from University of Bath psychologists Professor Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis and Dr Graeme Fairchild. Their inputs focused on some of the harms faced by young people online and also on research into how brain development in adolescence can increase young people’s chances of experiencing harm.

Professor Hamilton-Giachritsis is a Forensic and Clinical Psychologist at the University of Bath with research interests including the risk and impact of child maltreatment (particularly technology-assisted child sexual abuse) and early institutionalisation of young children. Her previous work, including with the NSPCC, has looked at the issue of online harms, calling on policy-makers to take swift action to tackle a rise in online child sexual abuse.

Dr Graeme Fairchild is a Reader in Developmental Psychopathology and interested in understanding the impact of trauma and adversity on the development of the brain in childhood and adolescence. His recent studies have looked at the causes and impacts of the severe behavioural problem conduct disorder.

The online harms section highlights how the number of URLs identified by the Internet Watch Foundation as containing sexual abuse imagery involving adolescents is increasing and that 12- to 15-year-olds are now almost twice as likely to report seeing something worrying or nasty online compared to 8- to 11-year-olds. It draws on the fact that that social media is ever-present in the lives of adolescents, with 70 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds saying that they have a social media account, offering amazing opportunities but also opening young people up to an array of potential harms.

Their expert insight ‘The adolescent brain and ‘keeping safe’ draws this theme together with research into adolescent brain development. It considers how adolescence is a time of great change – physically, socially and emotionally – with young people developing their sense of identity and expanding their social networks. They suggest that the ways in which the brain develops in adolescence can increase young people’s chances of experiencing harm. The increased desire for peer approval, reduced ability to delay gratification, and the tendency to make more impulsive decisions, particularly when peers are present, can all increase risk.

Professor Hamilton-Giachritsis explained: “The way in which the brain develops in adolescence means that this age group may be particularly vulnerable to exploitation by those seeking to harm them - but learning more about adolescent development gives us the knowledge to create safe environments for young people to take risks, grow and develop. For example, technologies should be designed with adolescents’ well-being in mind: the solution is not to stop young people using technology, but to ensure they can do so safely.”

Dr Fairchild added: “Our section of the report highlighted that while online socialisation and social networking sites were an important source of support and helped to maintain peer relationships during the UK lockdown, they also increased young people's risk of being victimised, bullied or exploited. This shows the importance of parents being aware of what their children are doing online and keeping channels of communication open in case their children need to discuss upsetting experiences.”