Keeping children in care safe online

Keeping children in care safe online

Most children in care use the internet safely but there are risk factors which can make them more vulnerable online. As a carer there are steps you can take to keep them safe.

Parents text content

Children in care

The online world can present many benefits and opportunities to young people, particularly for children in care.

Research has found that young people in care can benefit from the psychological, emotional and social support provided by social media networks (University of East Anglia, 2018). Positive online networks can help to reduce physical and psychological isolation, and can provide organisational support as children become more independent.

However as well as benefits, the online world does carry risks for children in care, particularly those who are vulnerable due to early experiences or the instability of being in care.

Most children in care live safely, but a small number do experience harm. There are a range of risk factors for children in care (NSPCC website) which you should be aware of. 

Parents text content

Children in care online

With the support of local councils and fostering agencies, it is important that foster carers feel confident in dealing with the risks children face both offline and online.  

Rules and boundaries you set offline can apply online. Take time to learn about the risks all children and young people face online, including access to inappropriate content and contact from people they don't know, so you can support the children in your care. Both Thinkuknow.co.uk/parents and Parentinfo.org are both excellent sources of support.

As well as this, there are specific risks children in care may face online:

  • Contact from birth parents or relatives
  • Risk taking behaviour
  • Bullying
  • Security and safety

Contact

Once placed into care, many children and young people have limited, regulated or no contact with birth parents or acquaintances from their past.

Offline it is often easier to enforce these rules than it is online.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram enable young people to search for ‘friends’, share information, communicate and play. With millions of users worldwide, it is natural for any child to want to be a part of this experience.

Communicating online can be harmless but in the case of vulnerable children there are added risks.

On these sites your child can be contacted by people they don’t know, or do know, such as birth parents or family members.

Children can be curious, so think about the possibility of your child actively searching for their birth parents or friends they have lost contact with.

These people may not have their best interests at heart and your child may need to be gently reminded of this. Talk to them about why it might not be such a good idea, and involve their social worker in the conversation if you feel you need additional support.

Remember: If contact is not allowed in the offline world, it should not take place online.

Advice for carers from carers

Parents text content

What can you do?

  • Sit with your child and explain the risks of making friends with people online, this includes people they have never met offline, but also people from their past. Explain that rules that apply offline also apply online, and that they are there to keep them safe.
  • Ensure their privacy settings on social media are set to private, so only people they know and trust can see information about them – most sites have advice to help you do this. If needed, look at this with them.
  • Ask them to tell you if someone contacts them online who is not meant to (like their birth family). Ask them not to respond or accept them as a friend.
  • Inform them that they will not get into trouble and that you can help and if they want to be in contact, there might be a compromise to be made. 
  • If you are aware of any inappropriate contact from family members or others, it is your duty to report the incident to your child’s social worker.

Security

Social media enables us to share a huge amount about ourselves. Children (and adults) share photos, stories and even their current location, through their mobile phones and other online technologies.

Any child sharing too much personal information could be putting themselves at risk, however in the case of a child in care these risks are multiplied.

Information about their personal circumstances can be manipulated and used against them. It could be that someone from their past is looking to locate them, find out where they live or where they go to school. To reduce the risks, ask your child not to share personal information online, such as:

  • Their offline locations like their home, school or current location
  • Photos of them in recognisable places, such as the local park or leisure centre

Ask them not to ‘friend’ people they don’t trust in the real world.

It’s not just your child who needs to think about their security, it’s the whole family. Content online can end up in unexpected places. A ‘like’ by a friend can mean that their friends can see the photo, or even friends of friends. Make sure your whole family follow the same rules as your child.

Bullying 

Children who are seen to be ‘different’ in some way are often a target for bullies. It may be known that your child is in care and this can make them vulnerable to bullying at school and online.

If you are aware that your child is being bullied (at school for instance), think about how this bullying could be manifesting online. This is sometimes called cyberbullying. If your child is being bullied online, there are some simple steps you can take to protect them. Childline have some great information which can help you with this.

As a parent or carer it is sometimes difficult to accept that your child could be the bully, and to manage this. If you are concerned that your child may be behaving in ways which are harmful to other children, talk to their social worker and school, who should be able to help you with strategies to address this with your child in a strong and supportive way.

Risk taking behaviour online

Taking risks is a normal part of growing up. However, sometimes children can behave in ways which put themselves or other children at risk of harm. Sometimes vulnerable children might be particularly likely to engage in risky online behaviour. 

Risky online behaviour might include accessing age inappropriate sexual material such as accessing pornography, seeking out violent content, sending or asking others to send sexual images, videos or live content (‘sexting’), or sharing or commenting on nude images of others online.

If your child is displaying risky online behaviour, it’s important to seek to understand the reasons why. For example, their behaviour may be a response to previous negative life experiences such as physical and emotional abuse.

Talk to your child sensitively and expand their understanding of why a particular situation or situations might be harmful to themselves or others. Explore the positive ways they use the internet, as well as the risks you are concerned about, and ask them how their online activities impact on their feelings and wellbeing.

Develop a plan together to help them manage their online activities in a positive way.  Make sure that they know that if anything that happens online ever worries them, they can come to you for help.

Also consider:

  • Speaking to your child’s social worker and school about how they can also support the child
  • Whether your child needs any therapy or mentoring that may help them to overcome the difficulties they are experiencing
  • Signposting your child to further support if they are ever worried and are not sure who to talk to e.g. Childline

Challenges

In complex situations such as these, challenges can arise. Your child may have come from a home where their online safety was not monitored. It may come as a shock to them when you attempt to implement new settings and security on the technologies and sites they use - they may be reluctant to oblige.

They may feel that this is an invasion of their privacy, that they own these technologies and that you have no right to touch them.

To overcome these challenges, think about;

  • Sitting with your child and implementing a ‘house agreement’ – explain that their safety is your main concern and that you know how easy it is to get into difficult situations online. Visit Thinkuknow.co.uk to explore advice and learning resources for different age groups. You could explore these areas together and answer any questions they might have. 
  • Take it one step at a time, give them the opportunity to become accustomed to any changes before moving onto the next.
  • Implement safety guidelines across the whole family, don't single them out.

Further advice and support

If you’re worried about your child and think something is not quite right, it’s best to be on the safe side and find out more. You can get more information and advice on the Thinkuknow website for parents and carers, or visit the Parent Info website which provides support and guidance for parents from leading experts and organisations.

If you’re worried about online sexual abuse or the way someone has been communicating with your child online, you can always make a report to one of CEOP’s Child Protection Advisors.