Connecting and sharing online

Supporting children & young people with care experience

Children and young people with care experience 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 can make them more susceptible to those risks.

Find advice on how to safeguard care-experienced children and young people as they navigate their digital world.

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 with care experience. See the benefits, risks and challenges associated with this type of online activity to support them.

The Benefits

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 with care experience to maintain healthy, positive relationships and friendships, learn new skills, enhance their academic grades. Further reading can be found here.

Supporting their wellbeing

Positive online networks can help to reduce physical and psychological isolation and can provide organisational and informal pro-social support as children and young people become more independent.

Supplementing education and learning

Learning and education is increasingly accessed online and children and young people with care experience 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 balanced view.

Social platforms give children an 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.

Further reading light-bulb

Not All that Is Solid Melts into Air? Care-Experienced Young People, Friendship and Relationships in the ‘Digital Age’

View research

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 development and is to be supported. Risk-taking increases as children get older. Protection from risk through total isolation does not prepare children and young people for adult life so allow risk-taking situations but with oversight. Internet activity and social media use are no different.

Any child or young person from any background can be at risk of online harm, but some may be more susceptible than others. Children and young people with care experience may be more at risk of the following:

Online abuse

Pre-care experiences such as maltreatment and neglect are thought to persist and children and young people taken into care due to abuse are more at risk of sexual victimisation and exploitation.

Privacy concerns

Children and young people with care experience may have a disjointed or fragmented social background and the risk of over-reliance on social media contacts is high. Where contact with birth family members is inappropriate, children and young people should be made aware of their discoverability through social media and other technology platforms.

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 with care experience often involved experiences of visiting inappropriate sites.

Cyberbullying/Trolling

48% of children and young people with care experience said they had been cyberbullied compared to 25% of those without known vulnerabilities.

Cyberbullying, unplanned contact and internet addiction are the top three risks ranked in the survey in 2019. Further discussion and research can be found here.

Cyber scams

Findings from our research showed that children and young people with care experience are particularly susceptible to cyber scams.

There is an association between children and young people with care experience, in care experiencing cyber scams, and being a victim of cyber aggression. This suggests that if they report a cyber scam risk, a parent/carer may wish to talk about other possible experiences that co-exist. For example, evidence indicates that 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 own and offline life and often become victims online, through someone who knows them offline and is aware of their ‘vulnerability’. In this way, the perpetrator has the knowledge to manipulate their target especially if they are experiencing vulnerabilities.

Research document

Vulnerable children in a digital age research report

View report

The Challenges

Seeking friendships online

Children and young people with care experience 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 with care experience may also overshare 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.

What things should you consider?

Parents and carers should look out for behaviour changes to determine if your child or young person in your care is experiencing an online harm (cyber scams, cyberbullying, sexting, revenge porn, online sexual abuse, online grooming etc.)

  • Has their behaviour changed?
  • Be involved from as early as possible. Be positive about their online activity
  • 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, together with them, ensure they understand privacy and safety rules

Practical steps to protect them

Children and young people in your care will increase in age and expectation at a time when apps, trends, risks, and tools available are also changing rapidly. Equipping yourself to safeguard them 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. Equally, getting a young person to sit with you and help you protect your own profiles allows you to demonstrate that you trust them; that they can protect/mediate their own profiles; helps build up a relationship which encompasses digital spaces and enables you to model good digital citizenship and open other discussions within this space.

The presence of risk does not imply actual harm, but teamwork (bringing on board 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.
We have provided insight and 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.

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.

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

Family 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.

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 are less than 100% successful. Check out Set Up Safe hub for more information.

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.

Make use of built-in parental controls

Built-in parental controls are available on iOS and Android devices, and many third-party apps. These apps and tools can also be perceived as spying tools by the child or young person and can undermine trust so should be used in conjunction with other tools and ongoing dialogue

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.

Conversations to have

Build up children and young people’s resilience to make safer and smarter choices online. Doing so by engaging in regular, open, bitesize conversations with them about their lives online is one of the best ways to build and develop coping strategies. It also gives you an easier way to know when to support them.

Check in with them

  • Asking open questions and listening in full to what they are saying without assuming anything or overreacting
  • Be non-judgemental. Children and young people with care experience are 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
  • You can opt to have conversations at mealtimes or during other activities. You could ask them to help you check your profile settings and this will then open ways to have conversations

Have ongoing conversations

  • Having ongoing conversations around what they should and shouldn’t share online and, what their understanding of privacy is and how they make decisions about what to keep private
  • Also, discuss data privacy (what ‘free’ apps take from us in return). This can help them set the right privacy settings on the apps they use and review them periodically to stay in control of who sees their posts

Ask them about their digital life

  • Discuss 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

  • While it’s important to manage the time that children and young people spend on devices, it’s equally and in most cases more important to address what children and young people are doing on screens. Understanding what they do while online and how this impacts their offline activities, i.e. sleep, schoolwork, and relationships is key
  • Encouraging them to have a balanced media diet of activities that help them to learn, stay connected to friends, and get that much-needed downtime is beneficial to their wellbeing
  • Putting a family agreement in place that helps them to understand when, where, and how they should use their devices can be a good place to start to address screen time management
  • There are also plenty of free tools on devices that can be used to review screen time use. These could be used to start a conversation on the best way to manage their online activities. For more advice on screen time, visit our advice hub

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

Things to remember

Ensure that online activity is only a part of a balanced lifestyle and that children and young people can 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 take (adapt them to fit with your knowledge of your child or young person).

What are the main issues?

Cyberbullying

What is the harm?

Although social networks make it possible for children to form and maintain friendship groups, they can also expose children to cyberbullying when relationships between friends break down or bullying moves beyond the school gates.

Cyberbullying can take the form of an exploitative relationship which is usually done by someone a child or young person knows very well. It relies on a person knowing to target a 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 a child or young person believe they have a close relationship – to demand things from them at times in secret. Therefore, 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:

Talk about healthy friendships

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.

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)

Get support from schools and other organisations

If the person or people doing the bullying are from a child’s school, you may want to contact the school about it. It’s natural for a child to worry about what the outcome of this might be and how the school responds will vary depending on their anti-bullying policy. All schools should have a policy and may have mentors who can help.

If the content of the bullying is sexual, targeted at your child’s ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexuality, if threats are being made to harm your child or incites your child to harm themselves, then consider reporting the activity to the police.

Where to go for support and advice

Online sexual abuse

What is the harm?

Any child or young person, from any background, can be at risk of sexual abuse online. But some are more vulnerable than others. 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 rest of 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 grooming

What is the harm?

Whilst online grooming is an extremely serious concern it is not a frequently experienced event online. However, despite its rarity, the implications are amongst the most serious of online harms.

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 social networks, encrypted chat apps and 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

  • If there is a particular ‘friend’ that you are concerned about, 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
  • Where possible, encourage them to use devices in shared spaces so that anyone contacting them knows they are not alone. Ensure they understand why this could help keep them safe, so they are more able to do it. Where they may feel the need for privacy, talk it out with them and agree on what would best work for them
  • 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. If a child or young person in the above environment does such things secretly, they are less likely to come forward as they would potentially fear implications of breaking the house rules (i.e., not using devices in family spaces meaning devices may be removed)
  • 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 to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)

Steps to take if your child or young person has sent an inappropriate picture/video of themselves to someone online:

  • 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
  • So You Got Naked Online resource for normal and SEND
  • Contact the CEOP if the image was sent to an adult as this is grooming

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

What is the harm?

Any child or young person, from any background, can be at risk of sexting. But some are more vulnerable than others. Particularly, children and young people with care experience generally have low self-esteem and possibly social isolation with poor relationship skills, so seeking acceptance and a sense of value, affirmation, and belonging.

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.

Anyone being positive (hearts, likes, etc.) or giving gifts (especially in games e.g., loot boxes, cheats, tips and tricks, upgrades) can be seen as trustworthy, friendly because of the gift.

Under UK law, it is already illegal to share or store images of under-18s with sexual content online. These are classified as child sex abuse images.

Coping strategies

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.

What should you do then?

  • 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

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 report the perpetrator on the platform
  • Retain any evidence on the device
  • Don’t confront the alleged abuser
  • 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.

Oversharing

Children and young people with care experience often ‘overshare’ information (inadvertently or not) online that can identify them. This may be through the content of posts or images (school uniforms, homes, their favourite places), the regular posting of comments or images (such as daily when leaving school), or through choice of identifiers such as usernames and gamer tags.

Based on these identifiers, adults who may present as a safeguarding risk may seek to get in contact. This can include groomers who may also use this information to befriend the young person and support the grooming process.

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 and advise them to be careful when sharing information about family matters, health issues, sexual issues, or other people’s personal business with people online. Although it may be beneficial for them to share some things with support groups online, it’s important that they are aware of the potential risks.
  • 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.

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 for example 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 the 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 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

Revenge porn

What is the harm?

The Crown Prosecution Service defines revenge porn as “typically sexually explicit media that is publicly shared online without the consent of the pictured individual and is usually uploaded by ex-partners”. It is an attempt to control and manipulate by people who are probably emotionally and perhaps physically controlling which as well can be easily done particularly with children and young people who are more trusting.

Coping strategies

  • Immediately block and report the perpetrator on the platform
  • Retain any evidence on the device
  • Don’t confront the alleged abuser
  • Remind them where to report inappropriate or unwanted content that they see online – you can try to get this removed

Where to go for support and advice

Under UK law, it is already illegal to publish images of under-18s with sexual content online. These are classified as child sex abuse images.

You can report revenge porn, whether it’s been shared by a vengeful ex-partner or a malicious third party who’s managed to get hold of the image, on the new helpline:

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

Here are a few resources that you can use to support a child’s interactions online and help them build good online habits.

Recommended resources

Here are some more resources to support children and young people. Visit the Inclusive Digital Safety resource centre for more expert resources.

Online safety leaflets to help foster carers and adoptive parents.

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National Fostering Group – Keeping Children Safe Online: A Foster Carer’s Guide to Internet Safety

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

Teen advice on where to go for support and guidance.

Ways to get in contact with Childlines counsellors.

Making the internet safer and more inclusive

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

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