Social Care and Online Safety: plugging the gap in awareness and understanding
The impact of technology on the lives of children and young people today is immense. On the whole it is empowering: it provides platforms for communication and collaboration which lift a young person beyond their own geography and culture; it underpins much of their engagement with the world and offers a sandbox to trial and develop new persona; it is a singularity for entertainment and a place where new and unique connecting, sharing and learning can take place.
And yet for safeguarding professionals who work with young people and their families the impact of technology presents a peculiar set of vulnerabilities that, on their own, may not always be obvious but, when mapped against physical and emotional risks, become significant.
- Children whose parents lack education or internet experience tend to lack digital safety skills and parental support online, leaving them vulnerable to online risk.
- Children with psychological difficulties tend to encounter more online risk, and to be more upset by it.
- Disabled children tend to have more digital skills but encounter more online risk and may lack peer support.
- Minority children also have more skills yet encounter more risk, and their parents wish to help them more.
How might the online world impact negatively on a child’s ability to make healthy decisions about the world around them? These are just some examples:
- Excessive gaming or social networking affecting sleep and even time for eating and drinking with physical needs not being met
- The influence of negative online content impacting on esteem?
- Lack of safety from grooming and aggressive contact in online social networks?
- Online content setting unrealistic expectations around body image or relationships that can impact negatively on a child’s sense of love and belonging?
Whilst these risks are associated with a child’s own active engagement with technology, the UKCCIS report also suggests that a child’s vulnerability is increased when parents, carers or older siblings model inappropriate use of technology around them. These behaviours could include:
- Openly accessing inappropriate sexual content such as pornography or dating site chat
- Playing video games on a family screen that contain violence, inappropriate language or extreme references to sex e.g. Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row or Call of Duty
- Parent’s/ Carer’s Over-engagement with technology that could lead to neglect of the child
One of the barriers to building consideration and understanding of such possibilities into the wider social carer’s professional brief is staff development: empowering staff with robust process and tools to assess these effects.
Only recently a survey conducted by BASW and the NSPCC revealed that social workers desperately need training to spot the signs of a child being targeted or abused online, with over two thirds of those surveyed saying they need more support with child protection cases involving online abuse.
To put these findings in the context of real life – here are two cases from the day of a social worker from the South West. It started with briefing newly qualified social workers on using online context in their assessments.
They immediately went into two case examples;
- Two friends, young girls of 12, one with learning difficulties. One was friended by a man pretending to be a teenager. Through friending her, the man then friended her friend and proceeded to groom and stalk both young people, sending three or four texts and phone calls a day. He encouraged them so send him indecent photos. Social workers were highly frustrated by parents’ inability/ unwillingness to understand the risks and act
- Another case that a team of social workers dealt with: CEOP alert came in regarding images of a young man (now 16) whose case was now investigated internationally. The young man was forced to produce indecent images of himself and being blackmailed by another man. Family devastated. Kid humiliated and struggling.
And these are examples from one day only. Do social workers know enough about digital technologies used by children and their families to identify potential risks? Does this awareness form part of their assessment work – do they ask the right questions to uncover essential pieces of information that could prevent abuse or resolve cases that have reached the court?
To address this need for suport, a toolkit and a training course for social care practitioners has been developed by the UK Safer Internet Centre and is being delivered across the UK thanks to funding from the European Commission. It was developed in partnership with South Gloucestershire LSCB and Social Work teams, and has been designed to be flexible and adaptable to existing assessment processes.
The training will:
- Provide practitioners with the appropriate up-to-date knowledge of digital technologies
- Help with identifying the impact of the digital world on children, young people and families
- Introduce the schedule of assessment, the accompanying materials and resources
- Consider how a plan of intervention may include references to digital technology
- Examine relevant resources and links to other appropriate organisations
- Provide practitioners with the toolkit to use in the field
A number of training events have been confirmed over the next few months around the whole of the UK , with a kick-off in London in September. We hope they will equip social workers with a better understanding of the relevance of digital technologies in safeguarding and provide us with more insights directly from social workers on where they need more support and training.
References included in the footnotes
 Identifying vulnerable children online and what strategies can help them
Livingstone, Sonia and Palmer, Tink (2012) Identifying vulnerable children online and what strategies can help them. UK Safer Internet Centre, London, UK.