Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Child abuse, profile pictures and slactivism

You may have seen this being passed around Facebook today:

Change your Facebook profile picture to a cartoon character from your childhood and invite your friends to do the same, for the NSPCC. Unti Monday (December 6th), there should be no human faces on Facebook, but an invasion of memories This is a campaign to stop violence against children

By mid-morning, quite a few friends of mine had followed suit and my news feed was now peppered with pictures of Captain Planet, Dexter, Powerpuff Girls and Superted. But I didn’t see the point, so I published this status update:

While I support ending child abuse, I don’t see how changing one’s profile picture will actually achieve anything. I hope everyone who has changed their picture has also donated money to the NSPCC.

It generated a number of comments, which thankfully were all civil (but then I’m quite picky about who my friends are). Still, it became obvious that I’d missed the point of this.
Note: this entry delves into the subject of child abuse. I’d urge you to continue reading, and you’ll see why if you do, but I know it’s an uncomfortable subject for some, hence the warning.

The idea was primarily to encourage ‘awareness’ of child abuse; some variants of the message did explicitly mention the charity NSPCC, although I doubt that the charity formerly condones the meme for reasons I will mention later. At the time, I didn’t see the point of this – I was sure that plenty of people are aware that child abuse happens and that this was a token gesture that made people feel good without actually making any difference. This is apparently known as ‘slacktivism’ – a portmandeau of ‘slack’ and ‘activism’ for feel-good token gestures that don’t actually improve anything.
The thing is, I’m perhaps more aware of child abuse than some. Not that I’ve ever experienced it, thankfully – my parents were actually pretty awesome in retrospect – but my mother’s involvement in the legal system, especially around the placing of children in care, meant that I knew that some kids unfortunately do experience horrible things. And it’s often a vicious cycle – many young people with criminal records are or have been in the care of local authorities, or have experienced abuse but never come forward about it. Remember, we’re talking about children – they may be too young to know that what is happening to them is wrong, or that they’re threatened if they tell anyone else, like their schoolteachers, about what is happening to them.
Awareness is therefore important. Going back to the NSPCC, their web site has a big section about spotting child abuse and what to do about it. If we all took a minute to read that, and know what signs to look out for, maybe when faced with a child who is potentially being abused we would be able to help. While it’s vital that teachers, nurses, health visitors and the like all know this information, the public at large should also know. We know from some high profile child abuse cases that abusers try to cover up what they’re doing to their kids, and keep them out of school for example – if we all do our bit, then maybe we can stop all child abuse.
So that’s a bit about my background, and about raising awareness of child abuse.
Giving money to charity
I suggested that people donate money to the NSPCC as that seemed like the easiest and most obvious way to help. The NSPCC certainly needs money, to support the running of its abuse helpline and website, but also to help its campaigning. Of course, that’s not the only way of helping – you could help to raise money through collections or sponsored events, or volunteer. But a donation is quick and easy, and ensures that the NSPCC’s valuable work could go on.
The message
Going back to the message and the request to change people’s pictures. It certainly was well-intentioned but a bit flawed. I’ve proposed a better version here:

Change your Facebook profile picture to a cartoon character from your childhood and invite your friends to do the same, for the NSPCC. Until Monday (December 6th), there should be no human faces on Facebook, but an invasion of memories. Remember, child abuse affects many – see the NSPCC’s web site for how you can spot the signs and help support tha campaign to stop it.

Not great, but I hope it gets to the point.
Doing it officially?
I don’t think this was started by the NSPCC and there’s certainly nothing on their web site. Had they started it, I’m sure they would have focussed more on their work, and what people can do to help. But also I doubt they’d encourage people to use cartoon characters from televisions shows – after all, these images are all copyrighted and I’m sure the copyright owners would all be too stingy to allow people to use their characters for free, even for a good cause. So if you have changed your picture, I’m afraid you’ve probably also committed copyright infringement.
Children In Need, if I remember correctly, did do something like this with an official Facebook application, which took your existing profile image and let you put a Pudsey eyepatch on it. Of course, they also invited a donation during the process.
Putting my money where my mouth is
Having written all of this, it would be hypocritical of me not to follow my own advice. I’m therefore reading up on the signs of child abuse and have donated £5 (plus gift aid) to the NSPCC. I’d encourage you to do the same. And thanks for reading.

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