The past few months have seen a renewed focus on online safety. There are growing expectations that children‘s professionals not only ensure safe environments for young people, but also make sound judgments where young people may be at risk from the impact of technologies.
It is becoming clear that when assessing the wellbeing of children and young people we must consider their relationship to technology; we can no longer safeguard them without recognising its use at home, at school, and in their leisure time, as well as by parents and other influential adults around them.
But do social workers know enough about digital technologies used by children and their families to identify potential risks? Does it form part of their assessment work – do they ask the right questions to uncover information that could prevent abuse or resolve cases that have reached court?
Those signs may be subtle and less obvious than those typically observed in an assessment and can be affected by drivers that are peculiar to online activity. These include:
● The permanency of online content significantly affecting recovery and resolution
● The scale of the internet increasing the circulation, audience and life of abusive content
● Children’s reluctance to report internet issues to trusted adults
● Disinhibited behaviour driven by the lack of visual non-verbal communication, such as intonation and gesture
● Physical separation and distance obscuring the identity of perpetrators and from where abuse originates
● Social media and opportunities for perpetrators to isolate children from supervision
● Anonymity and disinhibition encouraging intimate relationships to form rapidly and unreliably
● The influence of negative online behaviour by family members and peers, eg visible access to online sexual content; over-engagement with social media; violent content visible through gaming; inappropriate cam chat.
These drivers create the sorts of risk that we associate with negative online activity, such as exposure to adult pornography, being made the subjects of child abuse images, being groomed, bullying and sexting.
Effective intervention and assessment of course assumes that all professionals are trained and empowered to make those decisions and yet a recent survey of 327 social workers by the British Association of Social Workers found 74% wanted more support, while half felt concerned about dealing with online sexual abuse or behaviour.
To put these findings in the context of real life, here is a case encountered by a social worker from the South West.
Two girls aged 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 of them, sending three or four texts and phone calls a day. He encouraged them to send him indecent photos. Social workers were highly frustrated by parents’ inability/unwillingness to understand the risks and act.
South West Grid for Learning, as one of the three partners within the UK Safer Internet Centre, and together with South Gloucestershire social workers have developed a toolkit and training pack that supports social care professionals in making critical judgments about the uses of technology within the family environment and in completing risk assessments. The assessments inform strategy and planning in relation to specific concerns about the impact digital use may be having on the child and the family. There are 10 pilot events around the UK which kicked off this month.
Digital technologies will continue to have a huge impact on safeguarding children and young people, and we need to ensure social workers are fully supported in this area.
Ken Corish is the e-safety lead with South West Grid for Learning.