Looked after children can be more vulnerable to approaches online from strangers. Here, CEOP offers some tips on how to protect them – and help them learn how to protect themselves
As a carer for looked after children, there are specific risks that the young people you look after may face online that children living with their birth parents will not generally have to worry about.
It’s helpful to remember that rules and boundaries you set in the real world should apply to the online one too, but there are also preventative measures you can take before, during and after they have been placed with you to create a safer online environment.
Contact from birth parents
Once placed into care, it is often advised that children and young people have limited, regulated or no contact with birth parents or acquaintances from their past.
In the real world this is enforceable, at least until the child is old enough to have a degree of independence outside the home. In online spaces such as social networking sites, unauthorised contact like this can be difficult to manage.
Social networking sites such as Facebook give users the option to search for ‘friends’, share information and communicate with people you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet in the real world. With over a billion users worldwide, it’s natural for any child (or adult) to want to be a part of this phenomenon.
Communicating with real friends you know and trust online can be harmless to most, but in the case of vulnerable children, there are added risks. On these sites your child can be contacted by people they don’t know, or do know, such as birth parents and family members.
Remember....if this contact is not allowed in the real world, it should not take place online.
As we know, children can be curious, and it’s possible they will actively search for their birth parents or friends they have lost contact with. These people may not have their best interests at heart and your child may need to be gently reminded of this.
What can you do?
- Sit with your child and explain the risks of ‘friending’ people online, whether it’s people they’ve never met in the real world or people from their past. Explain why, that the rules in the real world also apply online and that they’re only there to keep them safe.
- Ensure they have strong privacy settings on all their social media accounts, so only people they know and trust can see information about them.
- Ask them to tell you if someone contacts them online who is not meant to (like their birth family). Let them know they won’t get in trouble and you can help. Ask them not to respond in any form – whether it’s a message or accepting a friend request.
- If you are aware of any inappropriate contact from family members or others, it is your duty to report the incident to your child’s social worker.
Social media has given us the ability to share information at the click of a button. Children (and adults) share photos, posts and even their current location through their mobile phones and other internet based technologies. Any child sharing too much personal information could be putting themselves at risk, and in the case of looked after children, these risks are multiplied.
Personal information can be manipulated and used against them due to the nature of their personal circumstances. It could be that someone from their past is looking to locate them. To eliminate this risk, ask your child not to share personal information online, such as:
- Real world locations, like their home or where they go to school.
- Photos of them in their school uniform or in a location which would be recognisable.
Bullying and risk-taking behaviour
Children who are deemed to be ‘different’ in some way are often a target for bullies. It may be known that your child is in care and this can make them stand out on and offline.
If you’re aware that your child is being bullied in the real world, think about how this bullying could be manifesting itself online.
If the child in your care is being bullied there are some simple steps you can take to protect them.
As a parent or carer it is sometimes difficult to comprehend that your child could be the bully.
Children in care may be more likely to present risky behaviour to others. They may be a perpetrator or seem aggressive to others. They could be acting out these emotions in the online world, through the games they play or through their interaction with others.
- If your child’s real world behaviour is deliberately mean and/or aggressive, talk to them about how hurtful this can be to others and what can happen as a result.
- If you are worried about their behaviour in the real world, look into how they are acting online and talk to your child’s social worker.
By keeping an eye on the risks, you will be able to help the children you care for enjoy the benefits of technology and create a safer online environment.
Watch this film for more advice for carers
First published 14 April 2016