Adolescence — a second chance for children affected by adversity, poverty & exclusion

Experts speakBy Benjamin Perks16 July 2015

As you read this, a teen somewhere is making a decision they may regret for the rest of their lives, one with high costs for themselves, their families and their communities. Joining a gang or a terrorist organization or committing a serious crime.

Every teen everywhere faces a turbulent transition to adulthood: the rapid development of identity, blossoming of emotions and onset of puberty. Neuroscientists explain the turbulence as caused by asymmetrical adolescent brain development. The socio-emotional processing system starts to respond to incentives and provocations from the early teens, but the cognitive control system, which is needed to filter those decisions is not fully developed until the early twenties.[1]

Over the past twenty years, there has been good news and bad news in research on adolescence. The bad news is that many more children than we ever thought before are entering adolescence with broken childhoods characterized by heartbreaking adverse experiences: abuse, neglect and dysfunctional parenting driven by addiction, violence or unaddressed mental health issues. This is multiplied further in areas affected by conflict, crime, and poverty. Science shows that the more adversity experienced in childhood the more difficult it is for the adolescent to navigate his or her way around the opportunities and risks they face and to make sensible decisions that don’t harm them or their communities.

The good news from neuroscience is the discovery of neuro-plasticity — that teenagers can strengthen the performance of their “executive function”, the part of the brain that coordinates behavior, choice and reaction, through learning non-cognitive or character skills. Thus, as much as adolescence is fraught with risk and possible lifelong consequences, it can also provide a second chance to get teens back on track to lead a stable, fulfilling and happy life.

To divert for a moment from vulnerable children to all children, character skills are increasingly recognized in many countries as being as critical as IQ in determining academic and lifelong success for all. They are seen as essential for long-term economic competitiveness and socio-economic development and are being mainstreamed in K through 12 education. Character skills include instrumental skills such as optimism, curiosity, motivation, perseverance and self-control that drive overall performance in school and life. But they also include integrity and locally-determined values that ensure performance is harnessed to the common good and can contribute to shared expectations and values within communities.

In Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam’s recent best seller ‘Our Kids – the American Dream in Crisis’ on inter-generational poverty and the decline in social mobility, he reviewed all of the recent American studies on childhood and concluded that in addition to the impact of poor nutrition and material poverty on children’s life chances, parenting and schooling had a massive impact: “Well educated parents aim to raise autonomous, independent and self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices, whereas less educated parents focus on discipline, obedience and conformity to pre-established rules.” [2]

Whether talking about teenage ‘child soldiers’ in war-ravaged, poverty stricken countries, or abuse victims, or gang members in high-income countries, we need to look beyond obvious interventions that tackle material poverty or provide vocational learning or housing. If traumatic childhoods have left them with a chaotic and untrusting view of the world — they will find it very hard to hold down a job, or maintain a house, or build healthy relationships. We need to complement material interventions with the development of the type of character skills that will help them become more autonomous, self-directed and build more self-esteem to make good choices.

In Montenegro we have joined forces with Birmingham University to support the Ministry of Education in developing character education in schools and within a global partnership with ING to support the development of such skills with especially vulnerable youth in a non-school setting. This includes young people leaving state care, Roma and other minority children, and young people in conflict with the law.

Character education is only one part of a range of interventions that are needed to help young people get back on track. Vocational training, support for accessing basic health and other services and even psychological therapy are also essential. But character — skills including integrity — are an essential part of the jigsaw. While there is now a strong global investment case that public funds in early childhood promote positive life outcomes and long-term competitiveness, adolescence is our second — and perhaps last —chance to harness the public good to ensure our most vulnerable teenagers build better lives — and eventually better societies. Let’s not waste that chance.

Benjamin Perks is the UNICEF Representative in Montenegro.

[1] The Influence of Neuroscience on US Supreme Court Decisions about Adolescents Criminal Culpability. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Laurence Steinberg. 2013
[2] P199. Our Kids-the American Dream in Crisis Robert D Putman Simon and Schuster

Fighting online abuse of children in Montenegro

12th May 2016. Published on UNICEF Connect

It’s hard to think of a crime whose victims are more faceless and vulnerable than victims of child sexual abuse. In most middle and low income countries, the subject of child sexual abuse remains largely taboo, without a social imperative to report suspicion of the crime within the community and with no ready help for children.

While efforts to address the subject of child sexual abuse can be sluggish, the ability of perpetrators to organize, network and harness technology is fast. The ever-expanding and accessible nature of internet and communication technologies has facilitated the distribution of child sexual abuse materials. The geographic boundaries between children and child sex offenders are reduced, resulting in new forms of online child sexual exploitation such as live streaming of child sexual abuse.

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Online child sexual exploitation includes the production, distribution, possession and consumption of child sexual abuse materials (also known as child pornography). The majority of the victims depicted in these materials are very young children, often girls. The gaining of a child’s trust for the purpose of future sexual abuse through chatting online – also known as online grooming – constitutes another form of online sexual exploitation of children. The perpetrators employ numerous social engineering tactics and tools to lure vulnerable children and befriend the child, or harass them when they are non-compliant.

Globally, law enforcement agencies have suggested that there are over 17 million such images and videos in circulation – 83% of them include children under 12.

WePROTECT is a global initiative spearheaded by the UK Government to end online child sexual exploitation. At the heart of WePROTECT is a commitment by countries, IT industry, civil society organizations and UN agencies such as UNICEF to take coordinated national action to tackle online child sexual exploitation. This includes the development and implementation of technological solutions to identify, remove and reverse the spread of online child sexual abuse materials and to enable law enforcement agencies to bring the full weight of the law down upon the offenders, and in parallel, to provide of support services to child victims.

Montenegro is part of the WePROTECT initiative and has thus far supported the strengthening of intelligence led policing capacity to identify offenders and to build sound prosecution cases. We will also launch a nation-wide anti-grooming application available to all parents, children and schools in June 2016, which will enable children to review animated scenarios of what to do if a stranger approaches them on Facebook.

Simultaneously, we need to break the taboo on talking about sexual violence against children and undertake a national campaign on the topic soon.

Connectivity is essential for children in the 21st century and is key to their cognitive and emotional development and the fight against poverty. However, parents and teachers are not always aware of how to teach and monitor safe online usage. We must promote the We PROTECT programme globally – to balance protection of children from harm against promotion of digital citizenship and empowerment for all, including especially for the children themselves.

Benjamin Perks is the UNICEF Representative to Montenegro and recently did a TedX talk on the impact of adverse childhood experiences