The Malta Independent 24 January 2022, Monday

Cannabis law will give children easier access to drugs – Commissioner for Children

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 5 December 2021, 08:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

The Commissioner for Children has expressed her concern about the new recreational cannabis law, saying that the fact cannabis plants can be grown at home will give children easier access access to drugs and they could be exposed to passive smoking.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Pauline Miceli said that anyone who works with young people knows how easy it is to obtain cannabis. “We have to keep in mind that young people have the urge to experiment, and in the process could make mistakes,” she said.

It is our job to give children the right information about the effects of the various drugs, including alcohol and cigarettes, and the harm they could do. What is more worrying is the use of synthetic drugs which are constantly changing, and hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine, which could be more harmful.

However, it is important to teach children how and where to seek help. Parents should also be made aware of the tell-tale signs that manifest themselves when their teenage children are experimenting with illicit drugs, Miceli said. 

Mentioning the new “tal-Ibwar” rehab centre inaugurated last month, Miceli said that the Commission has been advocating for such a centre for a very long time as before there was no specialised drug treatment available for minors and thus, they were sometimes mixed with older and more street wise persons who could be a bad influence on them.

 

Covid-19

Miceli said that it was not right that school attendance did not remain obligatory for children for one whole scholastic year at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Schools were closed in March 2020 when the pandemic hit Malta and, when they reopened the following September, parents were told that it was no longer obligatory to send their children to school. The obligation was restored in September 2021.

But, for a whole year, parents were no longer obliged to send their children to school, and the average attendance during the 2020-21 scholastic year dropped from 90 per cent to 70 per cent.

Professionals working with children or families reported to the Commission that some of those children not attending school were roaming the streets or were out and about in the shops with their parents. The Commissioner voiced her concern and advocated for attendance at school to remain obligatory.  

When asked on how the pandemic has affected special needs children since normally at school they need the continuous assistance of an LSE, the Commissioner for Children said that since this support service was temporarily halted, many of these children were negatively impacted especially if neither of their parents could be with them during online lessons or could not access the recorded lessons which were offered.

She added that although there were LSEs who continued to do their job through online lessons, their effectiveness depended on severeness of the learning disability. During the first phase of the pandemic several platforms were used, and teachers had not had enough training and not all children had the devices or internet at home to continue with their lessons from home.

Apart from that Miceli also said that children missed out as the lesson timetable was shortened to cater for the short attention span of children.

When asked whether there was an increase in obesity in children directly linked to Covid-19, Miceli said that being stuck at home and physically inactive could have contributed to the sad state of high obesity rate in children.

Food was the only thing that was readily available and if one wanted to add some spice to life food could easily be ordered and delivered on the doorstep, “something which I presume affected many people’s lifestyle and their pockets as it has very quickly become trendy,” she said.

The Office of the Commissioner carried out interviews and focus groups with children throughout the pandemic and children said that they felt anxious and stressed out partly because they no longer had any physical activity which for many consisted only of PE lessons at schools. Others who practice some sport such as swimming or football were missing these activities which usually make them feel good about themselves. And, the Commissioner added, not all parents are aware that children especially the very young ones need at least an hour of physical exercise every day

Another way in which Covid affected children was the long time spent of electronic devices. Miceli said that the Office, through the BeSmartonline! project was constantly promoting a healthy online and offline balance, but the pandemic turned everything upside down. She added there are negative consequences and dangers when being isolated with a computer and social media.

Staying at home more meant increased risks for children who used the internet often. Children can easily be befriended by strangers posing as children to groom and abuse them. Adolescents could easily find themselves persuaded to take photos of themselves in the nude or wearing underwear under the pretext that they would not be shared or shown to anyone else. These young people would then find themselves in trouble when they are threatened by these abusers. Parents should watch out for any changes of behaviour in their children and be there to support and help them if they find themselves in such situations.

Awareness raising on the use of the internet focuses mainly on empowering children. These past weeks the office launched the Council of Europe publication Kiko and the Manymes, translated into Maltese, for children from age 3 to 7, and includes a guide for parents. It is about what happens when one posts a photograph of themselves on social media.

 

Disciplinary ways used on children

Commissioner Miceli said that awareness about children’s rights and the respect one should show children brought about changes in the way parents and teachers correct misbehaviour. Corporal punishment, which until a few years ago was commonly used to discipline children, has been abolished as it was found that it only serves to instill fear, is humiliating and breaks children’s spirit.

Sexual, psychological and emotional abuse inflicted on children are other forms of violence which mark children negatively for life. The concept of positive parenting in correcting and disciplining children is to do it in a way that fosters good relationships and dialogue between parents and children while learning what is acceptable or not. Children should be guided to understand that all actions carry with them consequences. This kind of discipline is based on character formation and love, not fear, Miceli said.

Discipline in the traditional way is all about controlling children, assuming that we adults know what is best for them by not letting them have their say, imposing our will on them. Listening to children’s voices is as important to their growing up as fostering healthy relationships. Promoting children’s rights is all about promoting the human rights that children are entitled to enjoy as humans, Miceli said.      

 

Children’s safety around shotguns 

The commissioner said that the law should be changed to prohibit children from going hunting with their adult guardians, who in most cases is their father. She added that although hunters feel irritated by this because they want to pass on their hobby about which they feel passionate, to their children, they should be made to understand that it is dangerous for children to be on scene of the hunt as we know of cases where serious accidents happened and children were injured. She said that what happened in that video is not an isolated case.

 

The use of children in the media 

Speaking about the Standards which were created to be used when children are to be exposed publicly through the media, she said the Commission wishes that it be endorsed by political parties. Miceli said that for the formulation of these guidelines there was the input of several entities such as political parties, the Broadcasting Authority, persons involved in the media, and Appogg.

During the drawing up process, political parties reported that it is usually the children’s parents themselves who push for them to be part of their political campaigns, without being knowledgeable about consequences such as bullying at school by their peers.

Following these guidelines parents should take it upon themselves to educate their children on the effects of being publicly exposed. Adding to that, the Commissioner for Children said there should also be psychological backing.

When asked about why such standards are not taken into consideration as guidelines for a bill to be presented in parliament, Miceli said that first there needs to be a political will about their importance. She said that although she wished that such standards had legal standing, they are there and there is nothing stopping politicians from using them.  

 

Childcare centres

Speaking about the free Childcare Centres initiative to encourage women to take up paid employment, the Commissioner said that it should be accessible to all, as socialising from an early age is an important part of every child’s life. However, parents are not obliged to send their children to a nursery or kindergarten before they are enrolled in school when they are 5 but the vast majority of parents choose to send their children to kindergarten when they are three.

 

Obligatory School-age 

Miceli said that there is a present and constant drive for children to remain in school after compulsory education. She said that the number of courses which are being offered at MCAST to cater for today’s needs and upskill our workforce has increased. Many adolescents and young adults are choosing this path to further their training and education and obtain the necessary skills.

Miceli said that those who choose or are constrained to stop their education after Year 11,  are missing out on training which may impact their employability status. She said that a 16-year-old is not yet skilled enough to be in full-time employment in any industry. Referring to current courses present at MCAST she said that normally such students have the opportunity for hands on training through an apprenticeship with the relevant company.   

 

 

 

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