Robert Fitzgerald, children’s services product manager of OLM Systems, part of OLM Group, provided Children Webmag with an overview of this complex issue.
The World Wide Web has fast become the communication pathway for the tech savvy, of all ages and interests. Recently it has hit the headlines that councils are failing to properly brief foster carers about safeguarding the children in their care; this is endangering families and foster children. Safety is of course paramount, so what about the issues around using technology and the internet? With over 60,000 children currently in foster care nationwide, whose responsibility is it to monitor a child’s online activity?
The Wealth of the Internet
The current day’s web offers a rich educational and cultural experience for children of all ages and backgrounds; learning opportunities are endless. Not only can children absorb a wealth of knowledge, but adults too. With the arrival of countless internet sites and hubs of information also arrives an element of risk. Visitors to the web are presented with a number of sites; some may be safe and accredited content, but others may be highly inappropriate and full of useless and incorrect information.
Universally unregulated, the internet can present highly inappropriate material for young eyes; cyber-bullying and, at worst, predator grooming can also loom. First, this is something that adults must be aware of to protect their children, but secondly it’s an important area that children must be educated about.
Whatever a child’s living situation, children are at risk the world over. A child may live with birth parents, a foster family or in a children’s home; so let’s now take a look at how e-safety may differ slightly for looked-after children.
‘Looked-after children’ (LAC) can be defined as those placed in foster homes, residential homes or with other relatives. When a child enters ‘looked-after’ status there could be many a reason; the child may have suffered sexual, physical or mental abuse or a form of neglect from their birth family. Conversely, the child may have been the abuser towards his or her family. The abuse, from either side (family or child), may have originated through the internet, and this is something that the foster family or children’s home must be aware of.
More recently, national papers have reported that many local authorities are providing insufficient information to foster carers about the children in their care. One high profile case sadly highlighted this very fact; a lack of knowledge about the child’s background has led to that child committing abuse to his new foster siblings. If the case had been efficiently monitored and sufficient information had been communicated amongst relevant individuals, this resulting behaviour could have been eliminated.
At present there is a lack of mandatory regulations for local authorities to implement e-safety solutions throughout foster homes and children’s homes under their remit. Forward thinking councils are placing e-safety high on their priority list by employing computer monitoring solutions. However, the number of those yet to commit to e-safety raises much concern across the sector.
Street-Smart Children Maybe, But Are They Net-Smart?
It is becoming more apparent that many young people today experience cyber bullying via their personal mobile phone. With the advances in technology and access to the internet on mobile phones, our digi-generation can be glued to their phones for a large part of the day; this exposes them to potentially hurtful text messages, frightening images and inappropriate videos on a 24/7 basis. An example of this is ‘happy slapping attacks;’ many, I am sure, will be familiar with the term, where acts of violence against young people are recorded and shared using mobile devices.
Children should be encouraged to embrace the powers of technology and the wonders at their fingertips. But as I have stressed, this can expose them to significant risks. It may be a daunting prospect, but foster carers and children’s homes staff should be fully aware of e-safety procedures and the importance of educating their children; so here are my ten top tips to monitoring the cyber activity of your looked-after children.
1) Discuss the importance of promoting ‘safe surfing’ to their children.
2) Endorse internet security options – explore the solutions available and how they can help keep the family safe online.
3) Highlight the risks associated with giving out personal details online such as date of birth, phone number, home address and passwords.
4) Stress the risks associated with meeting an ‘e-pal’ online but also face to face – this could then be a topic of family discussion in the foster home.
5) Encourage foster carers to teach children to use child-friendly search engines.
6) Educate foster carers how to use good netiquette and ‘textiquette’- this can then be relayed to their foster children.
7) Embrace the internet – promote it as a valuable learning tool, somewhere children can discover and explore new worlds, but promote the importance safe surfing.
8) Teach foster carers about the use of email and the risks associated with junk mail.
9) Enlighten foster carers as to why it is advisable to place the family computer in a communal area – not only can surfing the net become a family affair but foster carers can subtly keep an eye of their child’s online activity.
10) Communication is key – encourage foster carers to become a part of their child’s online life, just as they would in day to day life. If children feel that they can openly communicate with their foster carers, the dangers of online activity can be substantially reduced.
Many believe that e-safety remains an issue of ICT. In fact, the root is much deeper than this; it is actually a child safety matter of concern and one that should take top priority on a local authority’s agenda.
About OLM Systems
OLM Systems, part of OLM Group is the UK’s largest independent supplier of software solutions for children’s and adult services, with a growing presence in health. Customers include 67 local authorities, as well as other social care providers. They offer deep understanding of business drivers combined with technology, service and information management expertise to help local authorities improve service delivery. Headquartered in Teddington, Middlesex, OLM Systems employs over 80 staff. For further information, please visit www.olmgroup.com.