Charities Missing People, the NSPCC and BBC Children in Need are partnering to launch a four-month pilot in Bradford District/Waltham Forest this week.
The ‘Is This OK?’ smart chatbot allows teenagers at risk of criminal or sexual exploitation to find appropriate support.
The chatbot utilises technology to help young people aged 13-18 to access confidential support via one-to-one chat on their phone or computer. The pilot is funded by BBC Children in Need, with tech development led by Reason Digital.
The pilot follows in-depth conversations with young people who were being groomed. Often they didn’t realise that what was happening to them was wrong until it was too late and they were being exploited. President of Childline, Dame Esther Rantzen, researched the best ways of reaching these young people on behalf of Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield.
Is This OK? is being piloted in Bradford District and Waltham Forest in London. The pilots aim to help young people searching online for support and allow them to give feedback about the new technology.
Leading the pilot at Missing People are Sara Rowbotham, the sexual health worker who famously exposed a child sexual exploitation ring in Rochdale, and Laurie Jarmain who has extensive experience in the digital and creative industries.
Sara Rowbotham said: “I’m proud to be a part of this pilot. We and young people have co-created a new resource so that other young people can feel more comfortable about accessing support.
“We live in a digital world which young people are fully engaged with and support services need to keep up, and make sure they are relevant to the ways that young people live their lives.”
Social workers and others who work with young people, including staff in schools, sexual health clinics and youth clubs in the target areas will be offered information and are encouraged to talk to their students and clients about Is This Ok?.
Dame Esther Rantzen, founder and President of Childline, said: “I spent six months meeting survivors and hearing their stories. Perpetrators groom young people by targeting the most vulnerable and involving them in crime, drugs or sex, trapping and threatening them until they believe there’s no way to escape.
“All too often they become so ashamed and fearful that they dare not ask for help. I talked to young people who described their agony and the fact that they blamed themselves, and they told me they desperately needed an online resource that would be safe, non-judgmental and easy to access.
“So I am delighted that with the help of the Children’s Commissioner for England and funding from BBC Children in Need we are finally able to pilot this vital service.”