Risks of the Internet for Children in Care

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05/11/2013 12:00am

Through your local council or fostering agency, you may feel equipped to deal with the vulnerabilities your child faces as a ‘looked after child’ in the real world, but how confident are you with the online world?

Rules and boundaries you set in the real world can apply online. It is advised that you take the time to read all of the information available on the parents and carers pages on the CEOP website and follow the top tips for your child’s age group. It is important to learn the technologies they use, the positive aspects of being online, but also what can go wrong.

As well as this there are specific risks looked after children may face online;

  • Contact from birth parents or relatives
  • Risk-taking behaviour
  • Bullying
  • Security and safety

There are preventative methods you need to take as their carer pre, during and post placement to create a safer online environment.

Specific Internet Risks for Looked After Children

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; however, in online spaces such as social networking sites, direct contact can be difficult to manage.

Social networking sites such as Facebook, give you the option to search for ‘friends’, share information and communicate. With over 850million users worldwide, it is 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 or family members.

Remember.... If this contact is not allowed in the real world, it should not take place in the online world.

As we know children can be curious, so think about the possibility of your child actively searching 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. Talk to them about why it might not be such a good idea.

What Can You do to Reduce the Online Risks for Your Child?

  • Sit with your child and explain the risks of ‘friending’ people online, this includes people they have never met in the real world, but also people from their past. Explain that rules that apply in the real world, also apply in the online world and that they are only there to keep them safe
  • Ensure their privacy settings in online spaces are set to private, 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), ask them not respond or accept them as a friend
  • Inform them that they will not get into trouble and that you can help
  • 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

Using Security to Reduce Risks of the Internet for Children

Social media has given us the ability to share information at the click of a button. Children (and adults) share photos, wall 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, however 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, find out where they live or go to school. To eliminate this risk, ask your child to not 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 a location which would be recognisable
  • ‘Friend’ people they don’t trust in the real world

Bullying and Risk-Taking Online

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 are aware that your child is being bullied in the real world, think about how this bullying could be manifesting online. This is called cyberbullying which means bullying and takes place either via text message or online.

If your child is being bullied there are some simple steps you can take to protect them. Beatbullying are a charity who deal with this issue and have some great information which can help you.

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 their behaviour may 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 on and offline 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.

In complex situations such as these, challenges can arise. Your child may have come from a home where their online safety was not monitored. It may come as a shock to them when you attempt to implement new settings and security on the technologies and sites they use - they may be reluctant to oblige.

They may feel that this is an invasion of their privacy, that they own these technologies and that you have no right to touch them.

To overcome these challenges, think about;

  • Sitting with your child and discussing the reasons for implementing a ‘house agreement’ – explain that their safety is your main concern and that you know how easy it is to get into difficult situations online. Show them a Thinkuknow resource - you can choose from those aimed at young people in Primary or Secondary education - to reinforce these messages
  • Take it one step at a time. Give them the opportunity to become accustomed to any changes before moving onto the next
  • Implement safety guidelines across the whole family, do not be seen to be singling them out

If you are concerned about your child’s safety online, speak to your NFA representative.