Gaps in practice around the online lives of vulnerable children

Vulnerable children tend to have a team of services that interact with them. A research study by Aiman El Asam, Rebecca Lane, Keli Pearson and Adrienne Katz (published in November 2021) aimed to explore how professionals around the child acknowledge and incorporate digital life into their practice.

The digital lives of vulnerable children

Digital life evolves rapidly, and both positive and negative impacts are becoming better understood. With these developments, the support that large numbers of vulnerable children require becomes more complex. This is especially true for certain vulnerable teens who may be more likely than peers to encounter specific online harms.

This study of 29 frontline professionals from a range of services in different local authorities undertook a focus group and in-depth one-to-one interviews. The professionals described the importance of the internet to young people as “Almost unquantifiable” and “An integral part of their lives. It governs how they look, how they feel.”

Issues that emerged in the report

Despite this awareness, the study found that digital life was not fully integrated into practice. The focus tended to be on identifying risk and less on understanding motivation, helping children avoid harm, or supporting recovery. Inconsistencies found in professionals’ training, systems and management of online risks, can affect safeguarding procedures for all those working with or caring for children and young people. This is because online life and risk were often omitted from referrals or not picked up, due to a lack of assessment tools or service procedures. Issues that emerged include:

Gaps in training

While safeguarding training is mandatory, training in digital risk (online safety) is not. More often it is an ‘add-on’ to safeguarding or child protection training. Confirming findings of our previous study, training if provided as a stand-alone session, is likely to be generic rather than specialised knowledge tailored for the service concerned.

The mixed benefits and harms of the internet

Participants in this qualitative study saw the internet as a medium that ‘magnifies the good and the bad of what’s available’. They recognised that the internet offered children ‘freedom and resource’ and described how young people could ‘develop a voice of their own’ or ‘use games to escape from whatever else they are facing.’ But they also felt young people had ‘no respite from the net.’ They observed that young people were seeking ‘emotional connection’ online, with a sense that a sanctuary existed online, for example for LGBT+ young people.

This environment, they said, also facilitated bullying and harassment and young people engaged in some high-risk activities for fear of missing out or to avoid being ‘socially punished.’ Participants felt that dissociation and desensitisation online might facilitate Cyberbullying: ‘they’re not seeing the reaction of the other person.’ One described the tension thus: ‘The very space where good things can be happening for that young person socially, is also the space…. someone bullying or harassing is going to come into.’

Missing knowledge about children’s ability

Interviewees described the importance of image and identity online and how children, ‘just want to be important and relevant and powerful and somebody.’ Despite these sensitive insights by participants, knowledge was poor regarding online risks and harms, and how they might impact vulnerable children and young people. Participants claimed that some carers underestimate young people’s capacity to even go online, particularly those with SEN who can progress their digital skills more rapidly than carers expect.

Challenges with identifying internal constructs, as well as the array of definitions of online vulnerability used by participants, suggests a significant risk of children falling through the gaps:

‘We don’t even get access to those young people unless they’re acting out or look different, so we’re missing the child who carries on OK at school holding it together.’

Taking devices away

A recurrent theme when monitoring online activities, was taking phones away from children and the complexities around this. It could lead to a child losing a source of support and becoming isolated from social life. They could feel their identity was lost. There are additional challenges for foster carers or residential workers in confiscating phones, for instance if purchased by a birth parent, resulting in legal complexities about ownership and carers’ responsibilities.

Fear of being blamed

A particular concern was the culture of victim blaming: ‘Children are fearful of being honest, hiding what has happened because parents demonise that. And another said: ‘I think one of the greatest dangers of children’s vulnerability online is the fact that they’re punished for it.’

Lack of awareness around tech

The generational gap was illustrated by adults’ lack of awareness and being tech averse: ‘I totally avoid anything to do with tech.’ Although participants said there were ‘pockets of a few professionals who do have a good understanding’, they also felt that: ‘GPs were completely not aware’. Foster carers and social workers were said to be ‘woefully unprepared and lacking in knowledge about internet safety.’

Inconsistencies in knowledge, data and assessment

Participants identified gaps in knowledge within their services, as well as a discrepancy in perceptions of risk between children and adults. These gaps are sustained by a lack of data and assessment tools: ‘I don’t think we’re always asking the right questions.’ Others mentioned inconsistent collaboration and communication, particularly around online risks: ‘I guess from my experience multi-agency working around online is really poor’ and ‘kids fell through the net the whole time.’ They mentioned staff turnover and understaffing, with people struggling to keep up, not having services to refer on to and unsuccessful attempts to raise concerns. But a root cause of poor agency collaboration was data which was ‘not routinely collated and analysed.’

Limits to referrals for vulnerable children

Difficulties of cross-agency working were also maintained by the concept of referral thresholds and premature discharge, relying on young people to engage: ‘We’ve built this really defensive system where it’s about thresholds. ‘Do you tick a box, do you not?’ and if [young people] don’t show up for so many appointments, they’re just struck off.’ While positive data sharing existed from a contextual safeguarding and police mapping standpoint, other challenges in data sharing were perpetuated by outdated systems: ‘Some systems can’t speak to each other’.

Digital factors omitted to get a child placed

There were serious concerns about information being omitted by choice, so as not to detract from primary concerns. or due to pressures to get children placed: ‘Digital is not always included even if other professionals around the child know there are digital issues.’ Worryingly, cases with digital elements might result in additional difficulties in finding placements and ultimately, poorer outcomes.

Lack of assessments for digital life

Most importantly, there was a ‘glaring gap’ in the assessment of children. Most assessment tools in use did not include digital life. There is limited routine enquiry regarding online risk: ‘it is insufficiently built into procedures,’ and ‘depends on how switched on the social worker, the team is. It doesn’t feel yet for me, integrated into practice.’

There was a sense of an urgent need for change, ‘Right now there is no data and tools are too generic, not specialised’ and the data ‘is within case notes and only shared if trying to prove a hypothesis and doing dip sampling.’

During the Covid-19 pandemic, there is evidence that young people were at increased risk of harm online and incidents of online child abuse rose markedly. Change is needed. If not now, when?

The publication process of this study has received financial support from the Nurture Network (eNurture) and UK Research and Innovation (Research Council Grant Ref: ES/S004467/1). This is part of a project titled “Vulnerability, Online Lives and Mental Health: Towards a New Practice Model”.

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