Children using phones

Navigating online life with children and young people

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We live in a world where online communication, work, education, resources, entertainment, and social media is ever-present. This is a quickly evolving world with new social media platforms, new trends and new vocabulary produced all the time. The first search engines and social media were developed in the 90s so adults in their 30s now have never experienced a life without the internet. The internet, together with the mobile phone has changed the pattern of social relationships, their construction, negotiation, scope and timeframe.   

There are many positives and benefits of this digital world, which can be used to support children and young people – with education, creativity, escape/mindfulness, direct support e.g. counselling, and peer support e.g. health condition groups, communication, maintaining relationships and friendships (particularly if difficult to do in real life), and resources. We recognise that not having access to the online world, ‘digital poverty’ can be harmful in itself.  

For children and young people their online life is as real to them as their real life.   

As professionals and carers, we need to consider the risks and negative influence of online life and how this impacts care experienced children and young people.  We also need to reflect on how adult carers and professionals use social media themselves and how we support our carers to look after young people around them.   

Children who are more vulnerable in real life are more vulnerable online

Children in care are already more vulnerable – directly e.g. neuroatypical, and indirectly e.g. isolated.  They have more reason to feel like an outsider, more reason to be bullied, and might be starting at a point of low self esteem and emotional dysregulation. They may have a lack of supportive adults or role models and have missed education and skills dealing with digital harm.  They may have been exposed to inappropriate online content at early age. 

These factors combined make them more likely to take risks online

In addition they have the additional impact of potential contact with birth families and friends online, which may be positive or negative.  

But there are fantastic resources available to support carers, professionals and children and young people. The NSPCC collates and shares data. There is legislation being introduced (in the UK, the online safety bill 2024) and ways of removing content. Education establishments have a clear curriculum related to awareness and skills managing social media and the online world.  

When we think about keeping our children and young people safe online, we need to move away from restriction to moderation and empowering them to be resilient. We need to be able to promote digital competence and resilience. Whilst it is helpful and appropriate to not use phones and blue light in the hour or so before bed to aid sleep, removing access to devices is not always the answer Aacknowledging there are certain situations when there are direct safeguarding implications that make removing phones necessary). The focus should be shifted to helping young people develop critical reasoning about what they're doing online, and what they are viewing and producing as content. Using the idea of their ‘digital legacy’ when they are older adults might help. We need to support resilience so that the negative health and social impact is lessened.   

CoramBAAF will be producing various sessions over the next 12-18 months. We will look at physical health impacts and mental health impacts of online use as well as how this might have more effect with adolescent development. We will consider content and specific areas such as addiction and gambling. We will also review what social workers need to consider in assessments, and prospective adopters and carers own use of social media. Safeguarding children from online harm is vitally important and the changing arena of child protection within the online world will be explored to enable professionals and carers to recognise and manage risks in the digital world.   

We will keep adding resources for carers and professionals to support and empower children and young people to strengthen their own resilience, their own critical reasoning, and their own skills in safely navigating the online world. 

Dr Vicki Walker, Consultant Paediatrician, Designated Doctor Children in Care, and Medical Advisor for Adoption East Midlands