Connecting and sharing online

Advice for parents and carers

Children and young people in care using the internet and social media share the same risks and benefits as any young person growing up today. However, their previous lived experiences, their placement moves and changes in caregivers disadvantage them in ways that make them more susceptible to those risks.

What’s on the page

What you need to know

Interacting with others online through social media or other platforms has become an important part of young people’s lives and even more so for children and young people in care.

The Benefits

Connecting, creating, and sharing with others online brings a range of benefits which can support children and young people’s wellbeing, including the following:

  • Maintaining relationships with family and friends – It can help overcome the fragmented relationships of birth families or frequent care location movements, helping children and young people in care to maintain healthy, positive relationships and friendships, learn new skills, enhance their academic grades.
  • Supporting their wellbeing – Positive online networks can help to reduce physical and psychological isolation and can provide organisational support as children and young people become more independent.
  • Supplementing education and learning – Learning and education are increasingly accessed online and children and young people in care regularly use technology for schoolwork. Their wellbeing can improve as will their opportunity to increase achievement and attainment of improved grades.
  • Connecting with support groups and organisations – Access to special interest groups, such as those for food/diet, self-harm, suicide, or other mental health issues, can be helpful and informative but can also have negative effects on wellbeing. Age-appropriate discussions around the subject will help them to establish a properly balanced view.
  • Social platforms give children outlet to share their creativity – Online video sharing and live streaming services such as Facebook Live, TikTok, and YouTube allow children and young people to develop creatively through participation, generating their own images or video content, as well as passively consuming existing content. They can also be a source of information and learning.
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Where do young people go to socialise

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The Risks

What behaviours/risks should parents and carers watch out for when it comes to sharing online?

Taking risks is a natural aspect of children’s development and should be supported. Risk-taking increases as children get older. Protection from risk through total isolation may not prepare children and young people for adult life. So, allowing risk-taking situations with oversight and supervision can help children build resilience and take ownership of decision making in a safer environment.

Applying this concept to their internet activity and social media use is important to help them make safer.

Children and young people from any background can be at risk of online harm, but some are more susceptible to it than others. From our research, we know that offline vulnerabilities can predict the type of risks that children and young people may be exposed to. Based on this research, children and young people in care may be more at risk of the following:

Online abuse

If a child has been taken into care because they have experienced neglect or maltreatment these may trigger behavioural and emotional problems that could make them more susceptible to seeking out relationships, possibly online that provide the security and interaction they are looking for. This could put them more at risk of sexual victimisation and exploitation.

Privacy concerns

Children and young people in care may have a disjointed or fragmented social background that can make them over reliant on social media to reconnect or seek out contact with their birth family. This can have an emotional impact on their wellbeing. Where contact with birth family members is inappropriate, it’s important to help them manage their privacy settings on the social platforms they use and advise them on what information not to share to stay safe.

Inappropriate content

As children and young people spend longer online and become more active and independent, they will inevitably see something that may upset or confuse them. This can include sexual, violent or harmful content. According to Online Safeguarding for Young People in Care, reports of actual online incidents for children and young people in care were experiences of visiting inappropriate sites.

Cyberbullying/Trolling

48% of children and young people in care said they had been cyberbullied compared to 25% of those with no not in care.
Cyberbullying, unplanned contact and internet addiction were the top three risks ranked outlined in the research report carried out in 2019. Further discussion and research can be found here.

Cyber scams

Our research found that children and young people in care are particularly susceptible to cyber scams.
There is a relationship between children and young people in care experiencing cyber scams and being a victim of cyber aggression, suggesting that if they report a cyber scam risk, they should be questioned about experiences of bullying and online aggression. Equally, if they report online aggression, support should include addressing cyber scams with them.

It is important to be aware that:
Children and young people tend to see no boundaries between their life on and offline. Often they are targeted by someone who they know offline who may use their knowledge of their vulnerabilities to manipulate them online.

Life online for children with SEND report light-bulb

This report summarises the findings of the workshops and extensive consultation that we carried out with young people, parents, carers, and teachers to help us to create the Connecting Safely Online hub.

View report

The Challenges

The primary challenge for all parents is to work out how to allow your child to enjoy the benefits of social media and connecting online, whilst protecting them from the risks that may lead to harm. This is especially important for children and young people in care because of the additional challenges that you may come across. These can include:

Seeking friendships online
Children and young people in care may look for places online and people to provide stable contact and interaction (good or bad) in place of physical interaction. They may have learned not to trust caregiving adults but can be won over by online contacts that do what they say they will do, give rewards, say positive things.

Oversharing personal information

Children and young people in care may also ‘over share’ information (inadvertently or not) online that can identify them, their status or their carers. This may be through the content of their posts or images (school uniforms, homes, favourite scenes), the regular posting of their location or through a choice of identifiers such as usernames and gamer tags.

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Where do young people go to socialise

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What things should you consider?

There are a few things to consider when approaching your child about their internet use, and when taking steps to protect their wellbeing:

Foster parents and carers should look out for behaviour changes to determine if a child is experiencing online harm (cyber scams, cyberbullying, sexting, revenge porn, online sexual abuse, online grooming etc) Here are some things to consider:

  • Has their behaviour changed?
  • Be involved from as early as possible in what they do online and find ways to encourage them to keep their online activity positive.Show and share good skills and behaviour in own online activity
  • Talk early and often to encourage dialogue and make it natural
  • Ensure they have a good support network
  • Educate them on both risks and benefits of connections
  • Empower and support them to make their own choices and be there if it goes wrong
  • Understand their previous online activity history
  • If they use their email address when signing up to things, make sure they have a good understanding of privacy and safety rules

Practical steps to protect them

Equipping yourself to safeguard young people requires a mix of communication and relationship skills and the capability to work at a technical level. Keeping up to date with the current digital landscape through your own training and research will make your safeguarding more effective.

It’s important to note that the presence of risk does not imply actual harm, but teamwork (bringing onboard everyone involved with your child or young person) and a positive, proactive approach to their online activity will create a good digital atmosphere, reducing the likelihood of them experiencing online harms.

Things you can do

Here is some advice on what you can do to minimise risk, mitigate harms and develop an ethos of digital safeguarding for children and young people in your care.

Turn on safe search

Google Safe Search and YouTube Kids app for mobiles, are designed to restrict access to inappropriate sites but are based on community participation and algorithms for filtering content so may be less than 100% successful.

Make use of built-in parental controls

Use existing free parental controls and privacy settings on the apps and platforms they use to manage their safety and set clear boundaries to help them explore in a safer environment. For more information, take a look at our Parental Controls hub.

Create a family agreement to manage expectations of screen use in and out of the home

Family contracts or agreements can be very helpful if everyone’s role, expectations and sanctions for non-compliance are clear and consistently adhered to. They can be particularly beneficial where all the care groups around the child or young person agree with them and support them. Have the agreement of all involved with the child or young person through the placement and care plans, safe caring policies and family agreements etc.

Involve their school

Connecting with the school and understanding their policies and procedures will enable discussion and use of similar approaches.

Encourage a balance between on and offline activities

Ensure that online activity is only a part of a balanced lifestyle and that your child or young person has the opportunity to engage in non-digital activities.

Create device free-zones in the home

Encourage them to take time away from their devices by switching off devices together and making it fun using apps like the Forest App. Taking the time to do a digital detox can also be a good way for them to assess their screen use.

Conversations to have

Check in with them

  • Ask open questions and listen in full to what they are saying without assuming anything or overreacting
  • Be non-judgemental
  • Children and young people in care may be less trusting of caregivers so more likely to expect that you will react badly to what they are saying so showing them that you can listen and respond calmly and supportively will be beneficial

Have ongoing conversations

  • Having ongoing open conversations around privacy (not to give out personal information) and data privacy (what ‘free’ apps take from us in return) can limit risks but appropriate settings in parental controls can also help
  • Regularly checking social media and app privacy settings is also important

Ask them about their digital life

Discussing their online activity may help to clarify how they are using a particular app or platform and therefore helping you to manage any feedback or comments they receive.

Discuss screen time management

  • Even though the screen time may be hard to agree on with so much focus on the use of technology due to pandemic issues, try to agree to certain parental controls. Such as switching off WiFi at a prescribed time or allowing a certain number of hours per day. Establishing patterns of activity such as 20 minutes screen time followed by looking for at least 20 seconds at something at least 20 metres away. It can be useful and give the child or young person a sense of control and involvement in their own self-care when online.
  • If they use screens at night, ensure blue light filter settings is switched as it’s less harmful than the normal screen brightness

Know the facts

  • Under data protection laws, from September 2020, service providers and app developers that monitor a child’s use and activity will have to comply with new design standards that inform users that they are being monitored and provide age-appropriate information and guidance. This can be a topic to provoke discussion and interaction that will benefit the young person’s understanding
  • Before they get into trouble online it’s a good idea to let them know that you are on their side and that if anything happens you can work together to resolve it. This will build trust and ensure they come to you if they do or see anything that upsets them

Things to remember

Ensure that online activity is only a part of a balanced lifestyle and that children and young people have the opportunity to engage in non-digital activities

Ensure they know who they are connecting with.

Involve them and empower them to make their own decisions based on support, education/training.

Encourage them to have a good support network that they can turn to as needed.

Stimulate critical thinking to help children and young people avoid inappropriate behaviour online.

Dealing with Issues

Here are some steps you can do (you will want to adapt it to fit with your knowledge of your child or young person):

What are the main issues?

Privacy concerns

Children and young people have a right to privacy but may not understand the value of their data or the risks involved with giving out too much information.

Like other children, those in care may lack the understanding of how online platform providers use their information for commercial reasons or insight on behaviour.

  • Managing passwords – Password sharing is common amongst young people to enable friends to access sites or apps on their behalf e.g. when away on holiday with no Wi-Fi. An example is the need to keep ‘Snapchat streaks’ (continuous daily interaction between two people) running for as long as possible. If those shared passwords are used elsewhere, then others can access these accounts without child’s approval and may post inappropriate comments or content.
  • Impact of increased online activity on digital footprint – Greater amounts of browsing and posting will leave a detailed trail of activity that can be followed to build up key data and information about the young person. This can be used commercially by sites or could be used inappropriately by adults to locate and groom a child. Examples can be found by watching NetSmartz – ‘Real Life Stories’ and Action Fraud’s – ‘How private is your personal information?’ This can also be used by birth families to trace or locate a young person when the care plan states such contact is not acceptable.
  • Over time, this activity and data trail becomes more detailed. Internet companies, advertisers and potential employers may use it for their own purposes e.g. to deliver unsolicited ads or assess us as candidates
Coping strategies

  • Ensure children and young people have some understanding of how sites can use the information they provide so they can be more mindful of providing too much information on certain platforms. Take a look at our privacy and identity theft advice hub to learn more
  • The Children’s Commissioner has published ‘Simplified social media terms’ that are easier for young people to understand  and can be used as part of everyday discussion
  • Discuss the importance of resetting a password after sharing it with someone. Use this activity sheet to help children and young people better manage their passwords
  • Stimulate critical thinking to help your child or young person avoid inappropriate behaviour online. Let them know about fact-checking websites and trustworthy sources so they can decide for themselves if something is fake or not. See our Fake news and misinformation guide for more support
  • Use different email addresses for general online activity, social media accounts etc, and important high-risk accounts such as school or college, health sites, banking and shopping accounts

Where to go for support and advice

Oversharing

Giving out location data, posting from key locations or leaving identifiable details in posted images can help abusers and groomers locate, contact and befriend children and young people. Birth family members may locate where the children live or make inappropriate contact unknown to their carers.

Coping strategies

  • Be a digital role model – be careful about what you share with others, including what you share with your child or young person. They may look to parents/carers as models of how to behave
  • Discuss what’s OK and isn’t OK to share – talk about what information is safe to post and what isn’t. Be clear: No talking about family matters, health issues, sexual issues, or other people’s personal business
  • Talk about consequences – They need to know what’s at stake when they overshare. They can lose friends and cause people to feel embarrassed. Make sure your child understands that online posts can last forever

Where to go for support and advice

If you need something taken down from a particular social media site, you can go to Ditch the Label, who can report the content to social media sites for expedited removal. You can also use the Report Harmful Content online website to get support on any issue you’d like to report. Also, if the information was further shared by a peer or classmate of your child or young person, contacting their school will help to ensure this does not happen again.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying can also take the form of an exploitative relationship which is usually done by someone your child or young person knows very well. It relies on a person knowing to target your child’s triggers to bait them into doing something or getting angry or upset for their entertainment.

Sometimes it can also be based on a conditional relationship that involves a person making your child or young person believe they have a close relationship – in order to demand things from them at times in secret. This is why it’s important to think about their emotional needs rather than simply enforcing rules.

Coping strategies

If a child or young person is a victim of cyberbullying they may find it hard to recognise it or to even tell you who is doing the bullying, so it’s important to:

Know who they are connected with online
Think about why your child or young person might be continuing a relationship with someone that is toxic (as it may be fulfilling a need to be considered part of a group).

To help them recognise that a relationship is wrong, explain why it can put them at risk. Discuss what a healthy friendship looks like so they have a reference point. Set up a closed friendship group on social media and encourage foster/adoptive family members and genuine friends to ‘like’ and comment on their posts.

Where to go for support and advice

Online grooming

For some children and young people, making friends online and chatting to strangers can offer a form of escapism or it can compensate for their offline reality.

At times even if you’ve had a conversation with your child or young person about not chatting to strangers online, they may still do it regardless to fulfil a need to expand their friendship groups to feel accepted and liked.

Predators may use online platforms to build a trusting relationship with the children and young people to abuse them. This abuse may happen online or they may arrange to meet them in person with the intention of abusing them.

Coping strategies

  • Find out more about who this person is and the true nature of the relationship. Make it a point to check-in with them regularly about the platforms they use and the people they interact with on these platforms
  • If possible, keep devices in shared family spaces so that anyone contacting them knows they are not alone
  • Discuss what they should and shouldn’t share online (even if they trust that person). Encourage them to keep their personal information private
  • Talk about consent so they feel confident to say no if they are feeling pressured to do something they are not comfortable with
  • Don’t make them feel bad about seeking affection online but take the time to explain the safest way to explore their feelings
  • Ensure they know where they can go for help if they get in trouble or are concerned
  • Review their privacy and security settings on apps/platform
  • Teach them how to block and report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. If you are at all concerned about contact with your child or young person then report it
  • In some circumstances, you may need to save a copy of the abuse, storing it away in a secure file before deleting – as you may need evidence of this to the authorities and/or police

Where to go for support and advice

  • Contact the CEOP if the image was sent to an adult as this is grooming
  • Childline – 0800 1111
  • NSPCC adult helpline: 0808 800 5000

If you think your child is in immediate danger call 999.

Sexting

Those who may have low self-esteem and possibly social isolation with poor relationship skills, may seek acceptance and sense of value, affirmation and belong online. This may make them more vulnerable to being manipulated or coerced into sending nudes or sext because they may think they are in a relationship or feel under pressure to do so.

Coping strategies

The National Police Chiefs Council Lead for Child Protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey said: “A third all of child sexual abuse is committed by young people themselves – tackling and preventing it is a significant challenge for both schools and the police”.

The ‘Police Action in Response to Sexting’ aims to help officers to respond in a proportionate way to reports of under 18-year olds possessing, sharing or generating indecent imagery of themselves or other children.
So, if your child or young person is being pressured to send a nude by someone at their school or other organisations like a youth group, approach the organisation as there should be a person who leads on safeguarding that will follow steps needed to investigate and report it.

  • Encourage your child or young person to tell you if anything worries them online or on their phone
  • Reassure them that you will work together to deal with it
  • Explore the facts – Who was the image shared with and was it passed on?
  • Contact the website provider – ask for the image to be removed from the platform
  • Do not shame or punish them, instead help them to understand that it is not appropriate or even lawful to make or share a sexual image of anyone under the age of 18

Where to go for support and advice

CEOP – If you need to make a report to one of CEOP’s Child Protection Advisors.

Online sexual abuse

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) found the most common concerns raised of a sexual nature were online and peer-on-peer abuse. They highlighted the challenges of managing children’s online safety and peer relationships

Coping strategies

  • Reassure your child or young person it’s not their fault – they are probably feeling just as scared and worried as you. Let them know that your main concern is that they are safe and that you want to help them. Children and young people often worry about the ‘stigma’ of having been abused. Avoid treating your child or young person as if they are different in any way because of it
  • Having calm and open conversations – explore what is happening in an honest and supportive way. Bear in mind that children and young people who have been abused will find it very difficult to talk about it
  • Avoid questions that might be felt to be intrusive or pressurising – instead focus on understanding how they are feeling now and what they might like from you
  • Has the abuse definitely stopped? – Often abuse continues even after a child or young person has told someone about it)
  • Work with the rest of the team around the child or young person to develop the self-esteem and self-worth, relationship skills, social skills and resilience

Where to go for support and advice

  • Report it! If you suspect a child or young person is a victim of online sexual abuse, report it immediately to CEOP or contact the police on 999, for the local police, 101
  • In some circumstances, you may need to save a copy of the abuse, storing it away in a secure file before deleting – as you may need evidence of this to the authorities and/or police
  • You can also report a problem by visiting our report issue page. Your child or young person’s social worker and supervising social worker
  • Also, Marie Collins Foundation and PACE are resources to help if your child or young person is a victim online sexual abuse

If you think your child is in immediate danger call 999.

Online emotional abuse

This includes emotional blackmail, for example pressuring children and young people to comply with sexual requests via technology. It can also involve deliberately trying to threaten, manipulate, scare or humiliate children and young people.

Coping strategies

  • Immediately block and delete the perpetrator
  • Don’t confront the alleged abuser
  • Explain what you’ll do next
  • Reassure your child or young person it’s not their fault – they are probably feeling just as scared and worried as you. Let them know that your main concern is that they are safe and that you want to help them. Children and young people often worry about the ‘stigma’ of having been abused. Avoid treating your child or young person as if they are different in any way because of it
  • Avoid questions that might be felt to be intrusive or pressurising – instead focus on understanding how they are feeling now and what they might like from you

Where to go for support and advice

  • Report it! If you suspect your child or young person is a victim, report it immediately to the CEOP or contact the police. You can also report a problem by visiting our report issue page
  • Alternatively, you can contact: Relate on 0300 003 0396. You can talk to Relate about your relationship, including issues around emotional abuse

If you think your child is in immediate danger call 999.

Recommended resources

Supporting resources to share with children and young people

Guides & Resource centre

 

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Free online safety leaflets to help foster carers and adoptive parents

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National Fostering Group is the largest independent fostering agency in the UK, with the largest community of foster parents

Keeping children safe online: the role of foster carers and the fostering agency

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Seeking support

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Childline helplines

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Making the internet safer and more inclusive

Together with SWGfL we've created this hub to provide online safety advice and gudience to support parents & professionals working with children and young people experiencing vulnerabilities

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