Thirty years of ChildLine: 1986 to 2016

ChildLine support needed more than ever, says Dame Esther Rantzen

These days, with sexual abuse, past and present, regularly making headlines it is almost impossible to recall that thirty years ago child abuse was such a taboo subject that children were imprisoned in silence, unable to ask for help.

The launch of ChildLine on the BBC programme Childwatch in 1986 sent a seismic shock through the nation, and was blamed by some professionals, and some critics, for bringing to public attention the prevalence of child abuse and neglect. It was a very alarming message.

But I believe the only way to solve a problem is first to recognize that it exists, and the creation of ChildLine gave permission to children to speak out for the first time. I regularly meet people who take me to one side to say quietly: "I only wish ChildLine had been there for me when I was a child."

"Fortunately, we have seen a dramatic shift take place. Whereas 30 years ago, children had often been suffering for over a decade before they spoke out, nowadays they often come to us within a month of abuse starting."
Dame Esther Rantzen / ChildLine founder

Giving children a voice

For previous generations, abused and neglected children were threatened and intimidated into silence. And for the tiny minority of children who did speak out, the result could be catastrophic for them, since children were all too often disbelieved, and blamed for what they said. One survivor told me: "When I tried to tell a teacher, she said I had a filthy imagination, and must never repeat what I had told her to anyone else. But it was all true."

Fast forward thirty years and ChildLine has counselled four million children, in twelve bases around the UK, with a dedicated army of 1400 trained volunteer counsellors, has been copied in 150 countries around the world, and has become part of the NSPCC.

Throughout it all, ChildLine has depended on the compassion and generosity of the public for its existence. I remember when it opened a widow donated her gold wedding ring telling me: "It is all I possess of any value that can help you."

What's happened to children over the decades?

Girl in BT phoneboxAbuse, neglect, and bullying are still among the most common problems they talk about now, as they did then. But there are new dangers too. The internet and mobile phones, unknown in 1986, have enabled more children than ever to contact ChildLine safely. But they have also brought new perils of online grooming, and sexting, creating additional shame because the children feel guilty and responsible.

One child told us: "I couldn't ask for help because I walked myself into this mess."

Bullying has always been a major problem, but it used to be restricted to the playground or the school bus. Now cyberbullying pursues children on their phones and their computers, hunting them down even into their bedrooms, so that there's no escape.

Social media fills young people's lives with an illusion of friendship, but in reality creates impossible aspirations - of how children should look, how popular they have to be - which increases their feelings of self-hatred so that now they talk to ChildLine about self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts which were never reflected in the calls thirty years ago. Paradoxically they seem lonelier and unhappier than ever.

Thirty years ago I hoped that ChildLine would not be necessary in the 21st Century. As it turns out, it is more needed than ever. Just as shocking as the revelation of the prevalence of abuse in 1986, is the discovery of this profound, widespread unhappiness and loneliness in 2016. So once again ChildLine is bringing to the nation a distressing message. And the only way to solve this problem is to recognize it. ChildLine is listening to children. Is anyone else?

"Just as shocking as the revelation of the prevalence of abuse in 1986, is the discovery of this profound, widespread unhappiness and loneliness in 2016. "
Dame Esther Rantzen / ChildLine founder