‘Snowflake millennial’ label is inaccurate and reverses progress to destigmatise mental health

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Triggered? Tim Dennell/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Shelly Haslam-Ormerod, Edge Hill University

From the baby boomers of the mid 1940s to the early 60s to Generation X yuppies who came of age in the 1980s – labelling generations is nothing new but as early as 1839 French Philosopher Auguste Comte wrote about the gradual and continuous influence generations have upon each other and how generational stereotypes hold firm.

For today’s millennials, who came of age around the early 2000s, the charge of “snowflake” has been attached to criticise their perceived sensitivity. The British Army even used the name recently to address young people in a recruitment campaign. One of the soldiers featured in the campaign has received hundreds of social media messages mocking his association with the snowflake poster. Despite this reaction from some people, the advert’s intention was to invert the label’s stigma and highlight the value of compassion in millennials.

Use of the term elsewhere has been uniformly negative. The English dictionary defines “snowflake” as a derogatory term to describe an easily offended person, or someone who believes they are entitled to special treatment on account of their supposedly unique characteristics. Members of the so-called “snowflake generation” are typecast as emotionally weak and lacking resilience.

Research has shown that labels such as these create stigma – and stigma’s role in mental health is an age-old problem. Amid the media furore around the poster there remains the disturbing statistic that one in eight children and adolescents and one in four adults in the UK will experience a mental illness.

Flippant stereotyping of a generation as weak based on their mental well-being contradicts efforts to reduce mental health stigma. It also undermines the goal of ensuring society values mental health equally with physical health.

From ‘can-do’ to #MeToo

The “snowflake” label contrasts with early published anticipation for the millennial generation. At the outset, millennials were met with encouragement, as a book published in 2000 by William Strauss & Neil Howe shows. “Millennials Rising” predicted a “can-do youth” which would recast young people from downbeat and alienated to upbeat, engaged and optimistic.

Since then however, global financial recessions, the rising cost of living and education, insecure work, climate change and a turbulent political landscape have all contributed to significant increases in poor mental health among young people. This has created a difficult environment for millennials to meet their potential. Rather than characterise them as weak, society should work together to help young people overcome these challenges.

In the UK, tabloid headlines have fuelled the problem. “Life’s too tough for snowflake worriers who spend six hours a day stressed out” reads one from the Daily Star in 2018. “Sheltered snowflakes with no idea how to survive in the real world are having to pay for ‘adulting classes’”, reads another.

Millennials have inherited difficult career prospects, a febrile international order and an expensive housing market. Fizkes/Shutterstock

A recent Daily Star headline from December 2018 prompted an open letter from mental health campaigner Natasha Devon. She condemned the headline: “Snowflake kids get lessons in chilling” and implored the media to recognise the ongoing mental health crisis and the need to challenge stigma, rather than labelling and stigmatising those in need.

What is perhaps more worrying is the ease with which this label is seeping beyond the millennial generation with the Daily Mail stigmatising even young children as “snowflakes”.

A quick Google image search of “snowflake generation” produces a slew of images that typify a hatred towards millennials, with derogatory jokes and memes. There’s also an association with words such as “weak”, “sensitive”, “triggered” and “entitled”.

Using “snowflake” as an insult was popularised by the alt-right during the 2016 US presidential elections in the US to negate the views of those considered anti-Trump, including liberals and leftists. This legacy does not reflect well on those parroting it in the UK media.

Debunking the ‘weak millennial’ myth

The label’s connotations need to be challenged. In reality, the millennial generation are resilient in bucking legacies left by older generations. Millennials are consuming less drugs and alcohol than previous generations and youth turnout at the 2017 general election in the UK was reported to be the highest in 25 years.

Despite growing insecurity in the job market, unemployment in Britain’s under-25s is among the lowest in Europe. Millennials are also ousting older generations from high-ranking roles.

The emotional intelligence of millennials shines through their continued efforts to oppose injustice. Their resilience is also clear in their efforts to excel despite the challenges they face.

Ultimately, the snowflake label is unfair because it encourages stigma and evokes hatred. The word “snowflake” has lost its wistfulness as the harbinger of winter, replaced by insults to an individual’s capacity to cope in a challenging world. As a society, perhaps we need to ask ourselves – when has stigma and contempt ever helped?The Conversation

Shelly Haslam-Ormerod, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health and Wellbeing, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Knife crime: how former offenders can make great mentors for at-risk teens

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Sean Creaney, Edge Hill University

It’s widely reported that there’s been an increase in street violence, particularly in London – with the number of knife and gun crimes rising. While the causes are complex and multifaceted, victims and perpetrators of serious youth violence often lack a relationship with a trusted adult.

One way to help reduce crime is to use ex-offenders as peer mentors. Those who have overcome adversity and stopped offending can act as positive role models for their peers – especially teenagers who are at risk of committing crime or being drawn into gang activity.

My research found that young people on court orders really value building empathetic and collaborative relationships with professionals who are ex-offenders, and have first-hand experience with the criminal justice system.

When carefully selected, provided with extensive training and given tailored support, former young offenders can be uniquely well-equipped to help their peers in need of support. And they can encourage young people on court orders to engage with criminal justice services and make positive changes in their lives.

Positive peers

Peer mentors can offer advice and support to young people who are experiencing personal, social or emotional difficulties, because they have first-hand experience overcoming such problems themselves. Projects operating around the world offer proof that this can work in practice.

One approach in the US is to recruit ex-offenders as credible messengers who can build trust and inspire change among young people. These mentors, who have transformed their lives, are viewed as assets who can help motivate young people – who are often marginalised and disadvantaged – to make better decisions and desist from crime. The project has been shown to reduce re-offending and improve young people’s self-esteem.

Similarly, the St Giles Trust, based in London, works with young people exposed to or at risk of violence. Their SOS project carefully recruits ex-offenders to engage young people.

The effectiveness of this approach was borne out in my research: in 2016 and 2017, I spoke with 20 young people and 20 professionals from a youth offending service in England, which works with young people who get into trouble with the law. One young person in my study said:

…unless you’ve experienced that, you cannot tell them…you cannot relate to them. Unless it’s happened to you, or someone that you know, there’s no way you can fully understand how they’re feeling.

Teenagers who are at risk of committing crime or being drawn into gang activity may be reluctant to talk to authority figures. But if the person they’re speaking to is an ex-offender themselves, they may be more forthcoming. For example, another of my participants, Anthony (aged 17), spoke passionately about a trusting relationship he had built with one of his workers, who had experience in the care and criminal justice systems.

Anthony said his worker was non judgemental and able to empathise and offer guidance when he was in a difficult situation. He described how he has contacted his worker on many occasions in a state of panic and valued receiving emotional and practical assistance. Anthony described his worker as inspirational, and was keen to follow in his footsteps in the future, by securing a job which involves caring for others.

Another of my participants – Zain, aged 17 – was also inspired by his mentor:

I’d love to do his job. He sort of inspired me. Cos I know about his past, he knows about mine. And it’s pretty similar, do you know what I mean? Grew up on a bad estate, got into drugs.

The right choice

Yet within the justice system there is still some scepticm about whether ex-offenders can steer their peers away from crime.

There are challenges: young people may lack the ability to offer emotional and practical assistance to their peers who are experiencing mental health problems. For this reason, it’s crucial to provide ex-offenders with appropriate training and ongoing support.

What’s more, they may have their own unresolved traumas, which could make it more difficult for them to form constructive relationships with both their peers and professionals. And this is why it’s important for authorities to screen and select the right people.

Yet peer mentoring can be an antidote to the disconnected, unhearing and technocratic criminal justice process. And the young people who engage in mentoring can discover that they have talents and abilities they didn’t know they had.

Because they’re seen as role models, rather than authority figures, young people who are ex-offenders can forge positive and meaningful connections with their peers, to the benefit of both parties. Above all, mentoring gives young people who have overcome their own hardships a chance to help others do the same.The Conversation

Sean Creaney, Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

County lines: the dark realities of life for teenage drug runners

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Jon Tyson/Unsplash., CC BY

Grace Robinson, Edge Hill University; James Densley, Metropolitan State University , and Robert McLean, Northumbria University, Newcastle

“County lines” is a term used by the police to describe a growing practice among criminal gangs: when demand for drugs fails to meet the supply in major cities, gangs travel to remote rural areas, market towns or coastal locations in search of new customers.

The process – referred to as “going cunch” (country) or “going OT” (out there) by those involved – has initiated ugly forms of exploitation. Children as young as 12 are hired as “runners” to transport and sell illicit drugs, while the homes of vulnerable adults are occupied without permission to create a base to sell from – a practice also known as “cuckooing”.

Tackling county lines is now a national priority: the government has launched a new £3.6m National County Lines Coordination Centre, made up of experts from the National Crime Agency. The centre aims to measure the threat of county lines, focus resources on the most serious offenders and work closely with partners in health, welfare and education to reduce the harms associated with the practice.

For our latest research, published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, we spoke with members of organised crime groups, police, staff on youth offending teams and young people aged between 14 and 17 involved in drugs gangs in Glasgow, Scotland and Merseyside, England, to find out what leads them to get involved in this practice, and how it affects their lives.

Working the lines

Before gangs started using the county lines model, class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine were typically supplied in remote areas by user-dealers who would sell to locals from their own supply. Competition in these areas was low, and violence was kept to a minimum.




Read more:
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But in recent years, gangs have been using experience gained in the big cities to enter into smaller, satellite areas with high demand, good profit margins and low police presence. They are leveraging violent reputations earned in the big cities to intimidate and dominate existing players in the illegal drugs market. Police in picturesque county towns such as Shrewsbury (a town of about 70,000 people close to the Welsh border in Western England) are now dealing with turf wars and homicides.

A costly mistake. Shutterstock.

During our research, we found that one of the root causes of this problem is how normal it is among teenagers to use cannabis – and the monetary cost of this. Young people in our study began smoking weed recreationally with their friends as young as 13. Perhaps more significant than the psychological and physical effects of cannabis use, which are heightened around the time of puberty, was the fact that weed cost money that these adolescents did not have.

The majority of county lines workers we interviewed in Merseyside owed money to a drug dealer. They accrued debt by having their drugs “on tick” – a slang term for a “buy now, pay later” scheme. When they failed to pay, the indebted were forced into working for their dealers. Working the lines meant being deployed anywhere at any time, answering the phone without delay when their masters (or clients) called, and leaving their post only to meet paying customers.

Debt bondage wasn’t the only way people ended up working the lines. Some of our interviewees in Glasgow entered the trade by their own volition. They were willing to travel and simply asked known drug dealers for a job. Owing to boredom, poverty and a sense of hopelessness about their legitimate job prospects, these young people felt they had no choice but to sell drugs.

The experiences of young people who had made a choice (albeit a constrained one) to “go country” didn’t fully concur with the horror stories about the practice portrayed by the media. During their interviews, some young people recalled their experiences as “funny”, especially when they spoke of the exploitative relationships they had formed with vulnerable drug users.

A user-dealer’s flat is taken over by teenage drug runners. Source, Author provided
Young interviewees in both cities recounted how drug users would be “terrored” or intimidated to pass the time between waiting for the phone to ring and completing drug sales. Young people would entertain themselves by getting users to perform sex acts, eat from ashtrays and “shit off the floor” or undergo “challenges” in exchange for “free” drugs.

Removing root causes

Our findings expose a paradox at the heart of county lines – the exploited and the exploiters are often one and the same. Drug dealers, drug runners and drug users form a hierarchical structure, with the most vulnerable – the users – at the bottom. Drug runners look down on drug addicts to make themselves feel better about their own station.

County lines expose that drug prohibition is not working: current laws neither effectively prevent young people from selling drugs, nor protect the most vulnerable in society from consuming them. Positive initiatives such as the National County Lines Coordination Centre are necessary for sharing intelligence between police and social service providers, but constrained by the folly of existing drug policy.

Our research highlights that a criminal justice approach based on tough enforcement and recovering the proceeds of crime is not enough to dissuade dealers from dealing. Unless we tackle demand for illicit drugs, and the root causes of gang culture – namely social and economic marginalisation – county lines will continue to be drawn.The Conversation

Grace Robinson, PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant, Edge Hill University; James Densley, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Metropolitan State University , and Robert McLean, Lecturer in Criminology, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Crime and nourishment – the link between food and offending behaviour

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tiverylucky/shutterstock

Hazel Flight, Edge Hill University; John Marsden, Edge Hill University, and Sean Creaney, Edge Hill University

It is well known that eating a balanced diet is of vital importance for maintaining good health and well-being. It is also one of the great social pleasures of life. Yet, far too many young people in prisons are consuming a poor diet, lacking in nutrition.

Alarmingly, research suggests over half of food items available for purchase in some prisons in the UK and the US are “high in fat or sugar”. It has also been suggested that in the US, prison food has been described as “scant, joyless, and unsavoury”. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Sant’angelo dei lombardi in Italy is said to have one of the best fed prisons in the world, where prisoners work to produce organic fruit and vegetables and leave healthier than when admitted.

Poor nutrition can impact on concentration and learning and may result in episodes of violent or aggressive behaviour. In prison, a bad diet can also contribute to increased rates of poor mental and physical health compared with the general population.

To tackle this problem, a new UK government strategy aims to provide young people with healthy eating advice on arrival in prison. Inmates up to the age of 21 will be provided with nutritional guidance so they can make “informed choices” about their diets.




Read more:
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Poor diet, aggression and impulsivity

The amount and nutritional value of food available in prisons and the dietary choices prisoners make has a significant influence on the quality of a prisoner’s life. Consuming highly processed and sugary foods can lead to sudden peaks and troughs in the amount of glucose in a person’s blood. This can cause fatigue, irritability, dizziness, insomnia and is even a risk factor for depression – particularly in men. It has been shown that a diet of whole foods can offer protection against depression.

Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals can lead to a number of issues. For example, low levels of iron, magnesium and zinc can lead to increased anxiety, low mood and poor concentration, leading to attention deficits and sleep disturbance. Omega 3 is required to improve cognitive functioning.

Recent government policies have recognised the problem of additives and the high sugar content of food, with the introduction of the sugar tax and moves to address the use of colourings, which have been found to have a negative effect on behaviour and hyperactivity. A recent example of the UK government’s willingness to intervene in the purchasing decisions of young people is the outlawing of energy drink sales to under-16s.

The types of problems associated with a poor diet, such as aggression, attention deficits and hyperactivity can make impulsive behaviour more likely. Studies have shown that “high levels of impulsivity are connected with high and stable levels of offending”.

Addressing the problem

Lucy Vincent – a freelance journalist with a background in both food and fashion – has started a campaign to address the need for better food in UK prisons. She believes that decent nutrition has the power to positively impact self-esteem, health, learning and development. Young people in prison are likely to have struggled with these issues and providing a better diet is an important step in improving their emotional health and well-being.

But there are obvious difficulties in improving the diets of young offenders. For example, Public Health England suggests that providing a balanced diet costs £5.99 per person, per day. Yet some prisons have food budgets as low as £1.87 per person, per day. There are obvious economies of scale to take into account, but providing a balanced diet for young offenders would still be a costly exercise – at a time when other parts of the prison service are starved of funds.

With experienced prison officers leaving the service and their remaining colleagues protesting over unacceptable levels of violence, improving the diet of young people in prison will be difficult to achieve.

But if the UK is to come close to breaking the cycle of reoffending, it needs to meet the basic needs of young people in prison and respect the basic human right of adequate nutrition. Government advice for young inmates is one thing, but those in prison need to have healthy food to choose from if they are to have any hope of staying healthy in jail.The Conversation

Hazel Flight, Programme Lead Nutrition and Health, Edge Hill University; John Marsden, Senior Lecturer in Counselling and Psychotherapy, Edge Hill University, and Sean Creaney, Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wildlife winners and losers in Britain’s summer heatwave

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Smiles all round for Britain’s adders. Shutterstock

Paul Ashton, Edge Hill University

George Orwell, upon returning from Spain in June 1937, remarked that what made England distinctive was the green of its landscape. Anyone currently making this same journey could be forgiven for thinking they were still on holiday, as the endless weeks of hot and dry weather have combined to produce a countryside as parched as that of the Mediterranean.

Flora and fauna in the UK have evolved in a temperate climate and as such, most are adapted to a higher level of rainfall and cooler temperatures throughout the summer. As a result, drought can be fatal. If there is enough water though, the hot weather means that plants and many insects progress more quickly through their lifecycles than they normally would. So organisms race ahead in development as long as the water supply holds out.

However, the biggest stress that the exceptional weather has placed on wildlife this summer is the drought. Only 6mm of rain fell in England during the first half of July and the UK received only 48% of the average rainfall it usually has in June. Although difficult to predict due to the complex web of interactions that make up ecology, this dry spell is likely to leave its share of winners and losers among British wildlife.

The winners

One area of the country that’s enjoying the weather is the Wigan Flashes nature reserve in Lancashire – where shallow lakes teeming with aquatic life have formed in the aftermath of mining subsidence.

The hot Wigan Flashes. Shutterstock

In summer, these lakes are often plagued by algal blooms of microscopic plant life that strip oxygen from the water as they decay. Usually, the warmer weather might have made these worse. But this year, the larger aquatic plants of the lakes flourished and crowded out the sunlight before the algal blooms could appear. Without so much algae around to decompose, the oxygen level in the water remained high.

A common tern welcomes the morning sun. Shutterstock

This allowed water fleas to thrive, providing abundant food for fish like perch and rudd, which then found their way into the gullets of birds like the common tern, which are likely to have a good breeding year. It would have taken a brave armchair naturalist to predict these chain of events.

For insects, the general view is that the hot weather has been a boon. Most winged insects like butterflies and bees are reluctant to fly in cool or wet weather and the heat has resulted in excellent numbers on the wing in the past.

A common lizard in uncommonly nice weather. Shutterstock

That’s good news for insectivorous birds like swifts and swallows and reptiles like the common lizard and adder who’ll benefit from the glut. Reptiles are at the northern limit of their range in the UK as they need hot weather to regulate their core temperature, so this summer’s heatwave will be very welcome.

A (not so) dark green fritillary. Shutterstock

The North Wales coast has seen good numbers of dark green fritillaries, grayling and brown argus butterflies. However, while the general picture for butterflies is good, these species depend upon plants both as a nectar source and as somewhere to feed their larvae. While many insects can move between plant species for nectar, the larval host plant is specific for each species. If this host plant is struggling without water then the larvae will have nothing to feed on.

The brown argus depends on rock roses for egg laying. Shutterstock

This is particularly true for rarer, highly specialist species that depend on one particular plant for their larvae like the brown argus butterfly, which would be threatened by any withering of rock roses in the present heat.

The losers and the usurpers

The mountain ringlet’s dark hues make hot weather a struggle. Shutterstock

Species in high altitude habitats like hills and mountains are adapted to cold, wet summers. Butterflies again provide a good example. For instance, the mountain ringlet is a small insect restricted to the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands. Its brown body is adapted to eking out any heat from the rare rays of the sun, so in this weather, overheating is a threat.

Likewise, rarer alpine plants are at the edge of their range and already restricted to north-facing slopes. The summer will have exacerbated their struggles even further given their physiology is adapted to cold conditions – too warm and they cook. The effects of climate change may become more pronounced as northern species at their southern limit retreat.

Frogs will be glad for any pond they can find. Shutterstock

Amphibians like frogs and toads may also stage an exodus to cooler climes. Although the insect boom might have helped with their food supply, in the drought it will have been a challenge to avoid drying out.

Even more drastic are the moorland fires that have raged as the dry weather means that vegetation is flammable. The most extensive fires have been those seen near Manchester.




Read more:
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The intensity and duration of the fire will have destroyed the seed bank, meaning that the newly burned areas are likely to be colonised by pioneer species, that means weeds to gardeners. These are tough, rapidly growing species that are easily dispersed such as rosebay willow herb and thistles – so expect some brightly coloured formerly burned hillsides in 2019.

Rosebay willow herb, otherwise known as ‘fireweed’. Shutterstock

Even without the calamity of the fires, this group of plants are likely to benefit given their high seed stores, easy wind-based dispersal and their capacity to occupy any open ground left by the disappearance of more specialist species.

The ConversationThese opportunistic coloniser plants are the long-term beneficiaries of this summer’s exceptional weather. After the heat has subsided, the changing make up of Britain’s moorlands will be an enduring reminder of the heatwave and its consequences.

Paul Ashton, Head of Biology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Liverpool judge’s decision recognises that ‘home’ still exists for the homeless

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Clare Kinsella, Edge Hill University

Stephen Gibney, a Liverpool man, has been sentenced to eight weeks imprisonment for urinating on homeless man Richard Stanley, while he slept rough in Liverpool City Centre. District Judge Wendy Lloyd handed down the sentence not just for degrading Stanley as a person, but also for attacking his home. Justice Lloyd condemned the offence, calling it:

A deliberate act of degradation of a homeless person … it was his home, his little pitch where he was trying to establish himself as a human being … apparently, to you and your companion this was just a joke.

By recognising that a homeless person can have something akin to a home, the judge acknowledges that home is an abstract, nebulous and subjective idea – that the meaning of home can differ between people and contexts. People who are homeless in the legal sense often feel as if they have a home, whether that be a city, a particular neighbourhood, a family or a friendship group. Some even understand their home in connection to the land, or as a content state of mind.

By making these comments, Justice Lloyd affords Stanley the dignity of having a recognisable defensible space, marked out by his possessions, which to all intents and purposes is his home – and should be respected as such.

A changing city

Since the early 1980s, Liverpool has been undergoing economic, physical, social, political, reputational and cultural regeneration. These processes have picked up pace since 2003, when Liverpool was announced as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. This accolade proved to be the catalyst for a range of initiatives to “clean up” the city, ready for its big year.

Like many other cities across the globe – New York, during its 1990s drive to shake off its title of “murder capital of the world”; Sydney, in the run up to the 2000 Olympics; and Glasgow in its preparations for its own European Capital of Culture year in 1990 – Liverpool’s authorities turned their attention to the city centre.

Mathew Street, Liverpool: drinkers with houses, welcome. littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock

In Liverpool, rough sleepers, street drinkers and any other groups identified as “uncivilised” impediments to regeneration were singled out and subjected to a range of punitive measures, including the criminalisation of street drinking and begging, designed to clear them from view. It was all part of the bid to present the city as prosperous and cultured, and to free it of its previous reputation for poverty, crime and post-industrial decline.

Scorned, not supported

Views of rough sleepers as anathema to prosperity and progress stem from the false belief that they must, by definition, perform all bodily functions – from urination and defecation to sleep and sex – in public spaces rather than a private home. Because of this, rough sleepers are seen as uncivilised – and consequently unwelcome – by authorities determined to attract business and tourism.

This has led, in some quarters, to the vilification of “visible” homeless people – particularly where their homelessness is seen as a “lifestyle choice” – on the basis that they wilfully stand in the way of social, economic and cultural progress. They are a social element to be scorned, rather than supported: a view which may have led Gibney – a man with a home in the conventional sense – to perform the kind of bodily function on Stanley, which is more often unfairly attributed to rough sleepers.

Once it is recognised that the idea of “home” applies beyond a formal abode of bricks and mortar, many more violations come to light: from the clearance of informal settlements, to the enforced displacement of whole populations.

For example, consider the forced removal of the population of Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean, to nearby Mauritius because the US military needed a refuelling base. The phenomenon is so widespread that it has even been given a name – domicide. The “-cide” suffix connotes murder: the deliberate, calculated and wilful killing of a home.

The ConversationBy thinking of the destruction of “home” as an act of killing, we recognise the its true value – home means so much more than simply a place or a building. And, although the meaning of home varies from person to person, those who lose their home – for whatever reason – almost universally experience shock, grief and bereavement. Justice Lloyd’s comments on handing down Gibney’s sentence reflect two vital but overlooked truths: that home has meaning beyond bricks and mortar and that being homeless does not necessarily mean having no home at all.

Clare Kinsella, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What Facebook isn’t telling us about its fight against online abuse

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Laura Bliss, Edge Hill University

Facebook has for the first time made available data on the scale of abusive comments posted to its site. This may have been done under the growing pressure by organisations for social media companies to be more transparent about online abuse, or to gain credibility after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Either way, the figures do not make for pleasurable reading.

In a six-month period from October 2017 to March 20178, 21m sexually explicit pictures, 3.5m graphically violent posts and 2.5m forms of hate speech were removed from its site. These figures help reveal some striking points.

As expected, the data indicates that the problem is getting worse. For instance, between January and March it was estimated that for every 10,000 messages online, between 22 and 27 contained graphic violence, up from 16 to 19 in the previous three months. This puts into sharp relief the fact that in the UK, prosecutions for online abuse have been decreasing, as demonstrated in the graph below.

Prosecutions for offensive messages. Based on figures obtained from the Ministry of Justice, Author provided

Yet what Facebook hasn’t told us is just as significant.

The social network has been under growing pressure to combat abuse on its site, in particular, the removal of terrorist propaganda after events such as the 2017 Westminster attack and Manchester Arena bombing. Here, the company has been proactive. Between January and March 2018, Facebook removed 1.9m messages encouraging terrorist propaganda, an increase of 800,000 comments compared to the previous three months. A total of 99.5% of these messages were located with the aid of advancing technology.

At first glance, it looks like Facebook has successfully developed software that can remove this content from its server. But Facebook hasn’t released figures showing how prevalent terrorist propaganda is on its site. So we really don’t know how successful the software is in this respect.

Removing violent posts

Facebook has also used technology to aid the removal of graphic violence from its site. Between the two three-month periods there was a 183% increase in the amount of posts removed that were labelled graphically violent. A total of 86% of these comments were flagged by a computer system.

But we also know that Facebook’s figures also show that up to 27 out of every 10,000 comments that made it past the detection technology contained graphic violence. That doesn’t sound like many but it’s worth considering the sheer number of total comments posted to the site by its more than 2 billion active users. One estimate suggests that 510,000 comments are posted every minute. If accurate, that would mean 1,982,880 violent comments are posted every 24 hours.

To make up for the failures in its detection software, Facebook, like other social networks, has for years relied on self-regulation, with users encouraged to report comments they believe should not be on the site. For example, between January and March 2018, Facebook removed 2.5m comments that were considered hate speech, yet only 950,000 (38%) of these messages had been flagged by its system. The other 62% were reported by users. This shows that Facebook’s technology is failing to adequately combat hate speech on its network, despite the growing concern that social networking sites are fuelling hate crime in the real world.

Thousands of abusive or violent messages are removed every day. Shutterstock

How many comments are reported?

This brings us to the other significant figure not included in the data released by Facebook: the total number of comments reported by users. As this is a fundamental mechanism in tackling online abuse, the amount of reports made to the company should be made publicly available. This will allow us to understand the full extent of abusive commentary made online, while making clear the total number of messages Facebook doesn’t remove from the site.

Facebook’s decision to release data exposing the scale of abuse on its site is a significant step forward. Twitter, by contrast, was asked for similar information but refused to release it, claiming it would be misleading. Clearly, not all comments flagged by users of social networking sites will breach its terms and conditions. But Twitter’s failure to release this information suggests the company is not willing to reveal the scale of abuse on its own site.

The ConversationHowever, even Facebook still has a long way to go to get to total transparency. Ideally, all social networking sites would release annual reports on how they are tackling abuse online. This would enable regulators and the public to hold the firms more directly to account for failures to remove online abuse from their servers.

Laura Bliss, PhD candidate in social media law, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Eurovision Song Contest 2018: Olá Amigos!

All Aboard, Eurofans! It’s that time again…

This is the 11th year of my Eurovision Song Contest blog. I’m not blogging from sunny Lisbon this year, no – it’ll be sunny Southport/Ormskirk for me once again. As with last year this won’t stop me from getting suitably Eurovision giddy, and sharing my thoughts on the Contest this year with returning and new blog readers.

I’ll be blogging from this Sunday. The rehearsals have been underway in Lisbon since last weekend and from what I have seen of the snippets of rehearsal footage it’s once again going to be a musically and visually interesting year. Israel have been the bookies favourite for months now, but is now being challenged by Norway and France amongst others. The ‘Big Five’ and host country Portugal start their rehearsals today (4 May), so let’s see how they get on.

Anyway, I’ll be back online from Sunday, so in the meantime here’s the official Eurovision trailer to get you in the mood, with a whole load of songs I’be commented on since I started doing this blog waaay back in 2008…

Obrigada, Euro-chums!

Click here to read more of Phil’s Eurovision blogs here

‘As a gay man, escaping the North was a matter of life and death’

By Billy Cowan, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing.

In April 1998 when Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were signing the Good Friday agreement at Castle Buildings, I was just coming to the end of a degree in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at Liverpool John Moore’s University. As a young, gay, Northern Irish man from a staunchly loyalist background, I had willingly left the armoured vehicles and the red, white and blue pavements behind for a more peaceful life in England.

For me as for lots of other young, Northern Irish people who grew up during the Troubles, getting out was an existential necessity. As a gay man it was even more a matter of life and death. Staying would have meant the subjugation of my sexuality and desire, the negation of my identity.

Growing up in a household ruled by a homophobic, bigoted matriarch who had pictures of the Reverend Ian Paisley mounted on her walls, also meant that my home-life was just as much a warzone as the one outside, and I desperately needed to escape.

From the age of about twelve to seventeen, daily battles with my Ma felt no less as terrifying and bloody as the tit for tat battles taking place in the rest of The Province. I remember clearly the “screaming matches” we used to have during the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) and the Ulster Says No protests. I thought the AIA was a step in the right direction; an opportunity for dialogue with all sides concerned. Ma thought it was one step closer to a united Ireland and the erosion of her Protestant identity.

When I used to challenge her about this Protestant identity, highlighting the fact she never set foot in a church or appeared to have any Christian values, she’d retort that she was a Protestant politically not religiously! You could never win with my mother.

The effect of this upbringing was to make me quite apolitical; completely apathetic to the situation in the North. I didn’t really care whether Ireland was united or if the six counties remained part of the UK. I didn’t really feel Irish, and I didn’t really feel British. I didn’t care what flag flew above my head except, maybe, the rainbow flag.

The one thing I did care about, though, was peace. I wanted the killings and the pain to stop. So, when the agreement was mooted I was full of hope. Here was a real chance of peace, and I wanted it to work out.

Ma, of course, like the DUP, was against it. The very mention of the word “peace” would cause her to fly into a rage, barking like a rabid dog about us Protestants being sold down the river Lagan and into the South, and how we’d soon be controlled by Rome. She hated the idea of the Republic having any say in the future of Northern Ireland; not even the Nineteenth Amendment that rescinded the Republic’s irredentist claim on Northern Ireland could appease her.

Paramilitarism

The negative responses of the DUP and my mother infuriated me and for the first time in my life I was compelled to respond to the political situation. Making use of my three years study of theatre and creative writing, I decided to write a play. Inspired by Queer Theory and Judith Butler’s idea of “queering” I was going to take the situation in Northern Ireland and turn it into a queer farce.

It was going to be outrageous and provocative; it was going to subvert the usual macho, heterosexual Troubles narrative that always focused on paramilitarism; it was going to be personal, a way to come to terms with my mother and my upbringing; and, most importantly, it was going to end on a hopeful note of reconciliation and peace to reflect the tangible hope that I, and many others, felt in April 1998.

I set about writing the play. My mother became Peggy Morrow and I was her son, Kyle. When Kyle comes out to Peggy, on the eve of the Good Friday agreement, she demands he leave the house. Instead Kyle barricades himself into his bedroom and goes on hunger strike until she changes her mind and accepts him for what he is.

The divided household and the “war” that ensues was the perfect metaphor for the conflict in the North. Peggy represented Unionism, Kyle Nationalism. Once this central conceit was in place, the play practically wrote itself. By the end of three or four weeks, Smilin’ Through was born: a mad-cap play with song and dance numbers; dream sequences; fellatio; dead terrorists; members of paramilitary organisations called Ulster Against Faggots and the Irish Queer Liberation Army; religious leaders called Reverend McMillan and Cardinal Dainty who come together to persuade Peggy to keep up her stance against Kyle and homosexuality.

I even had a singing Canadian Mountie who appeared to Peggy in fantasy sequences and is the one who helps her see the error of her ways. This character was based on one of my mother’s favourite Hollywood stars from the 30s and 40s, Nelson Eddy. To me, it was the perfect way to represent the former US Senator George Mitchell who was mediating the peace talks at Stormont.

Power-sharing

Ironically, like the road to peace, the road to production of the play was long, and there were many hiccups and milestones on the way. In 2002, three years after it was written, it won the Writing Out award for best new gay play, organised by Finborough Theatre London, and then in 2004 it won Contact Theatre’s Flip the Script slam.

This led to John McGrath of Contact commissioning the play and finally co-producing it in 2005 with Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Although the play was produced almost seven years after the Good Friday agreement it was still relevant because peace in Northern Ireland at that point remained tenuous; the IRA’s decommissioning of its weapons wasn’t fully achieved until September 2005 and the devolved government at Stormont had been suspended because the unionists lacked the trust needed to enter the power-sharing Executive. My play, with its happy ending where Peggy and Kyle are reunited in a rendition of Smilin’ Through, one of my mother’s favourite songs, offered some much needed positivity.

On the opening night at the Birmingham Rep, I sat at the back of the auditorium and cried as the audience responded with riotous laughter and rapturous applause. I didn’t cry because I felt proud or relieved that it had finally been produced. I cried for Peggy and Kyle, for me and my mother. I cried for all those who had suffered in the years preceding the Good Friday agreement. And I cried for Northern Ireland, its past and its future.

 

Billy Cowan is Senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. Smilin’ Through went on to be nominated for best new play at the Manchester Evening News theatre awards 2005. It is published by Playdead Press.

Why the age of sexual consent continues to be a worldwide challenge

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shutterstock/MIAStudio

Michael Richards, Edge Hill University

France is considering changing its legal age of consent so that sex before the age of 15 is automatically considered rape after recent child sex cases raised serious concerns. At the moment, prosecutors have to prove that the underage sex was non-consensual to obtain a rape conviction.

The change is being proposed as a way to tackle issues with the laws in France that mean if no violence or coercion has taken place or been proved, offenders can only be charged with sexual abuse and not rape. In fact, sentences of this nature are the same for sexual assaults of minors and non-minors.

The debate around the age of consent is still as relevant and as serious as it ever was. In the UK, the age of consent is 16. But in Germany and Italy it is 14, whereas in Turkey the age of consent is 18. Yet, if we consider that one in three teenagers are having sex before the age of 16, does that mean the age of consent needs to be considered again in the UK?

 

Children and the law

It is an issue that emerges time and time again in the UK and it always remains at deadlock. But does UK law ensure that our children are always on the edge of being a “sex offender”?

In the UK, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is illegal to engage in sexual activity with someone under the age of 16. In some cases, it may be a defence to say that it was reasonable that there was a belief that the person was 16 or over. But, ordinarily, a “sex offender” is likely to be imprisoned for around five years if someone was under 18 at the time. The sentence increases to ten years to life if the offender is over 18 at the time of the offence.

In effect, it does not matter what your age is. But if you have sex with someone under 16, you become a sex offender. That is despite half of all UK teenagers having their first sexual experience by the age of 14, according to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. So is it right to see young people hauled before the courts, convicted and put on a sex offenders register alongside adult rapists and paedophiles?

This is the reality but the law is there for a reason – to protect the vulnerable and less experienced. Although this does not always happen. The NSPCC says five child sex offences are reported every hour. It is no surprise then that people have expressed concerns that some sex offenders would see any change in the law on consent as an opportunity to focus their sexual intentions on young teenagers. The worry is it could lead to an increase in abuse cases and increasing pressure to have sex at a younger age.

Some are concerned that it might lead to a further increase in STI rates and unwanted pregnancies (the UK has some of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe).

There are wider issues relating to the sexualisation of childhood and the culture that we live in. Can we not just let children be children?

There is also the issue of education – or lack of it – in schools and at home relating to sexual consent and behaviour. So lowering the age of consent is not necessarily the answer.

A confusing global picture

While 16 remains the average age of consent in Europe and beyond, there are dramatic differences globally. This ensures there are confused messages about when it is right to have sex or not. In some countries, you have to be married before you have any sexual relations (Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). In other countries, you can have sex from the age of 11 (Nigeria) and quite a few countries allow the age of consent to be 13, including Japan and Niger. For many, for the age of consent to be so low is unthinkable. But it may reflect the traditions, religion, culture and history of a particular country.

Perhaps the laws of consent need to be more flexible and realistic to ensure that young people are protected. At the same time, there must be an appreciation that many reach sexual maturity quicker than others and therefore are able to make choices about their own bodies. For example, in Canada, while the age of consent is 16, the legislation is constructed in such a way that older sexual predators would be prosecuted rather than young teenagers who might be in established relationships, even if they have not quite reached the age of 16. This also alleviates some of the pressure associated with having sex at a younger age.

The issue of consent is an emotive one that may never be fully resolved. But it is an important issue for people of all ages. France is having that debate once again. Perhaps it is time the UK joined in?

Michael Richards, Lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.