Page last updated at 01:17 GMT, Monday, 22 September 2008 02:17 UK

Hi-tech help for children at risk

By Tamsin Osborne
BBC News

Screengrab of ChildLine homepage, NSPCC
Some children must be careful when seeking aid

Children suffering abuse will soon be able to contact the NSPCC's ChildLine via text messages and the internet.

The NSPCC hopes to reach more at-risk children by making use of the technology that youngsters are comfortable and familiar with.

Early trials by the NSPCC show that boys and girls seek help with family problems in very different ways.

The improved access to ChildLine - 0800 1111 - comes as the NSPCC bids to recruit more people to answer calls.

Helping hand

Although thousands of people contact the NSPCC via ChildLine every day the organisation still struggles to answer every call. Currently about 67% of calls get answered and just 40% of children who need counselling receive it.

"At the moment, we've got a real problem about not being able to reach every child who wants help," said Dame Mary Marsh, director and chief executive of the NSPCC which took over ChildLine in 2006.

"The rate that children can get through is just not good enough, so part of the process is to give different channels of access so there is going to be some way they can get some help," she said.

Help to expand the NSPCC services is coming from Microsoft in the shape of a 1.3m donation of software and services from Microsoft. Also included in the donation is space on the MSN homepage through which children will be able to contact ChildLine.

"This is an important partnership for us, and an important issue," said Akhtar Badshah, Microsoft's senior director of global community affairs.

Child using mobile phone, PA
Many children are more familiar with technology than their parents

"The NSPCC is an amazing organisation providing some extremely needed services for the most vulnerable population that we have anywhere in the world," he said.

Dame Mary said giving children the chance to contact ChildLine via text message and the net would help the majority who suffer cruelty or abuse at home.

NSPCC research suggests that 94% of sexual abuse cases reported to ChildLine in 2005/06 were committed by someone known to the child, and 59% of abusers were family members.

This, said Dame Mary, often meant children had difficulty seeking help without being found out.

"They used to have to do it out in a telephone box or find a time when people weren't about, but now they can do it from their bedroom," said Dame Mary.

"The vast majority of children and young people have access to PCs, whether it's in school or in the local library or other community facilities," she said. "And the availability of mobile phones is opening up that kind of access."

Preliminary trials have shown that text message access to counselling services is a particularly good way of reaching boys, who are less likely to turn to contact helplines than girls.

A similar service called Text Someone has been in place in some schools since 2004, allowing students to send a text in confidence to their school at any time to report incidents of bullying or abuse.

Text Someone's managing director Stephen Clarke welcomes a national system, but argues that schools themselves have a role to play in managing reports of abuse.

The NSPCC hopes that a link to ChildLine on the MSN homepage will also help to reach children who may not be aware of how to get help. "MSN is so popular with young people. It's a fantastic route in," said Dame Mary.

Mr Badshah said that this strategy had boosted traffic to charity sites enormously.

He said "We have seen that when we've used it during a humanitarian crisis, where we appeal during floods, tsunamis, earthquakes or hurricanes, we have a huge impact in actually being able to move people directly to the charities to donate."

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