The ‘digital world’ (mobile phones, tablets, social media; the internet; online gaming; etc) is a part of everyone’s life including foster carers and the children they look after. Many people, including foster carers, worry about the safety of children and young people when they are ‘online’. There are certainly risks associated with the ‘digital world’ but it is worth remembering that the ‘digital world’ also provides access to a huge range of valuable resources ranging from education to entertainment. When considering the risks of online activities, we do then need to ensure they are considered in the context of the wider benefits that are available through the ‘digital world’. The last 12 months where everyone’s life has been restricted because of the global pandemic would have been very different if we had not been able to work, socialise, and learn via online services.
Despite these positives there are some risks in the online world, just as there are in the real world. Often these risks are considered under three headings, which are often referred to as the three ‘Cs’:
CONTENT – Age-inappropriate content is easily available to children online. This might include content that is pornographic, violent, extremist or which promotes harmful behaviour (e.g., substance misuse or self-harm). Content on the internet can also be misleading or unreliable.
CONTACT –Children can be contacted by cyber bullies or people who intend to groom or seek to abuse them. Friends made online may not always be who they say that they are. There is a risk that children use online chat or messaging to arrange a face-to-face meeting with people that represent a risk to them.
CONDUCT – Children may be at risk because of their own behaviour on the internet. This might include sharing too much personal information or security information. It is easy to feel anonymous online and children may be unaware of the digital footprint that they are creating.
More recently a fourth C has been added for consideration. This is COMMERCIALISM and relates to the hidden costs in apps, games, and websites.
All these things together can seem overwhelming but there are some simple practical steps we can all take to keep children and young people safe. Whilst internet filters and parental controls are excellent tools the most important thing we can do is to work WITH children and young people. The most effective way to do this is by having open conversations with them about their online lives and helping them look at ways they can keep themselves as safe as possible. We can even use the four Cs to shape our conversations asking questions such as:
Where have they been online and what did they see? This will help you understand what content they may have been accessing and facilitate a discussion about the risks related to content and how they can keep themselves safe.
Who have they been talking to? This helps you understand who they are connected and whether they know people offline as well as online.
What do they do online? This will help explore potential conduct risks, such as exploring what they post online and whether they are sharing personal information.
How do they use that app or play that game? This helps you understand if the apps games have hidden costs and whether the child or young person understands/realises this.
All the above have the added benefit of showing a child or young person that you are interested in their world and that you are happy to talk openly about their online activities. Creating this open dialogue will help foster carers identify potential risks and enable children to feel comfortable talking to their foster carers if they are worried about something. Whilst it can bee tempting to ‘just say no’ to the ‘digital world’ this reduces our ability to help children and young people learn how to keep themselves safe and behave responsibly when online. A negative approach or attitude to technology could reduce the likelihood that children and young people will talk to us if they are worried about something that is happening in their digital lives.
There are a range of online resources to support children, foster carers, parents, and adults working with children. Some of the following are helpful sites: