1.4 Working with vulnerable young people online
While it is recognised that all children and young people are vulnerable to the risks of the internet, there are, as indicated in the previous section, particular groups of children and young people who are especially vulnerable. Some research suggests that children and young people with intellectual disability, such as autistic spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are at risk of ‘being left behind’ with regards to internet access (Agren et al., 2018). It is known that this particular group can be more at risk of the dangers associated with the internet: they might have poor insight and judgement about the dangers, have a desire to make friends and be ‘included’ and as a result of difficulties with peer-to-peer social skills they might feel more comfortable engaging with people online (Chiner et al., 2017; Buijs et al., 2017; Normand and Sallafranque-St-Louis, 2016).
The following activity explores the challenges when working with children and young people with intellectual disability, those who have experienced potentially traumatic events or frequent and significant life events, may live in foster care, with a special care order in place or in a specialist residential setting. It uses the real life experiences of a family support worker who works with children and young people from this group.
Activity 4 Discussions with a family support worker
Please note: you are advised to undertake this activity on a desktop computer as the crossword may not appear correctly on smaller screens.
Note that the audios use pseudonyms to respect the confidentiality of the people and service users associated with the organisation in which the family support worker is employed.
Listen to each audio and then complete the crossword clues for each one.
Transcript: Audio 1
Most young people that are referred to us all have a diagnosis of autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, they have mental health difficulties, attachment issues and trauma based behaviours. A lot of the young people I have worked with have had a lot of traumatic early years experience in education. They’ve been excluded on numerous times and been to different mainstream settings and in and out of education for maybe four or five years. Some of the young people have also been home educated for long periods of time. A lot of the young people that we look after are on care orders so they could be fostered, adopted or under special guardianship order.
The challenges that I face every day with working with this specific group of children on the internet is that they have difficulties with their social interactions with peers and they find it hard to form appropriate relationships and sustain them. Our young people are also desperate to have friends and they will put themselves in vulnerable positions to form relationships; i.e. sending inappropriate pictures or talking to strangers or sending explicit texts. They also end up having arguments over the internet which causes conflict in the setting, young people not always recognising the dangers of the internet and the risks that they put themselves under. Also they can, like, grooming or watching harmful material, pornography and they also can access, like, self harm videos in order to hurt themselves.
I’ve seen child sexual exploitation, child criminal exploitation, online sexual abuse. Radicalisation which is where you are groomed to be involved in terrorism.
Online gambling, now this is quite a recent one that I’ve been involved with, where a young person actually stole the credit card – parent’s credit card and is quite fixed actually and got a, like, an addiction to it and has spent thousands of pounds on mum’s credit card.
So the specific group of children that I work for all have experienced some significant trauma or event and this has had such a huge impact on their emotional and social needs, therefore leaving them completely vulnerable to online grooming. They are so desperate to make friends and this can look very obsessive to us because they haven’t got the social skills.
Young people may display risky behaviours online, particularly on the chatrooms like Facebook, Whatsapp. They may feel more confident in talking to strangers than they do to their own friends or family. They share their personal information including names, addresses, phone numbers, where they live and what school they go to and they don’t actually realise that the person on the other end could be an abuser. Young people may exchange self sexual images or videos through mobile phones or other devices, Facebook being top of the list for this. These images can be shared to other members of the group and also they don’t realise that once they’ve put this picture up it’s there for good.
Transcript: Audio 2
The children have training in internet safety. We recognise that actually having taken the internet away and sanctioning is not helping the young people because at the end of the day this is their life. This is what they need all the time and also as they go into employment the internet is going to be there so our kind of philosophy on it is to teach them better ways and to help them keep safe online. So what we do we have got planned online safety programmes that are led through the ICT lessons and also this is readdressed in tutor times as well.
Within my group work I address pornography and we look at fantasy versus reality and the fact that actually pornography isn’t actually real. They think it’s real because they’re watching it but actually it’s quite violent and they do things that perhaps in a normal loving relationship people wouldn’t want to do. We explore that and we talk about it open and honestly so that the young people have a clear understanding that actually pornography is not real.
Recently I’ve been involved with a case. Her name was Jess and she’s a looked after child in the foster care system. She’s particularly vulnerable because she has been in and out of several different foster placements since two years old. She has obviously been through the trauma of going into care from birth and then moved so many different times and then she was placed with us when she was twelve. She became a little bit more settled but she liked her internet and at the weekends she used to go home to her foster placement. She had a love of makeup, hair, fashion.
She used to take lots of selfies of herself and then when one night she was at home on her own and doing what she does on the internet she made a fake Facebook account and put on her profile where she lived, the settings and her phone number and she also put her address on. She also, within that device, her location settings were set on so you know that means that some people outside can find you. She started posting her pictures, her modelling pictures, her selfies and she made herself up with all her makeup. Some of the pictures were quite provocative and then she was chatting with her friends and then this message came up from a lady saying, oh I like your picture.
Showing an interest in that she said thank you and then the lady said to her you are absolutely beautiful and the girl was really taken, all girls like to feel beautiful. This lady then made her feel really special and wanted and Jess started opening up to her saying she was unhappy and she’d been through the care system but she really, really as she gets older, wants to be a model. The woman then started to manipulate, saying you could be a model, I know someone. Just send me some more pictures. I can help you. The woman showing interest in her, again complimenting her all the time now developing her trust in a warming relationship. The woman now said well I do know someone but I need to see you topless. Is that okay? Jess complied because she thought she was gonna be a model and the woman replied she wants to come over to her house and do some real pictures. Jess at that point got scared and said no.
The woman said to her if you don’t let me come to your house I will share your naked pictures with all your friends and all your family and then she text back her address and I know where you live and actually wrote her address. Luckily Jess at that time turned everything off and came to see a member of staff and disclosed this. At the time we were really scared for her because we thought who is this woman.
She talked to the staff and the staff obviously then passed it on to the designated safeguarding lead which is where I got involved. Having seen this information we were really concerned about who this woman was and so we called the police and we also made a referral to social services. Within 24 hours the police went round to Jess’s house and removed all the devices. This actually took nearly eight months for the police to actually go through the device and find out exactly have had gone on. It was concerning because obviously this woman did have this girl’s address so we did put safeguarding concerns in place. We let the foster carers know and, you know, they kept a close eye. After the investigation was over a man of 48 years old was arrested for sexual abuse online for ten girls all under the age of twelve.
Transcript: Audio 3
Online safety messages should be put on throughout the curriculum even if you are doing maths, English and science, just as a reminder that if you are working on IT that there are still risks around that.
Young people should be helped to understand the need of online safety to be open and honest and discuss the risk and discuss their concerns as well. Adults should also I think show a positive role model when using the internet within their setting and teach them safer ways. So there’s many websites out there to help parents and professionals to keep their children safe online. However, it’s a huge task as everything changes all the time.
The young people also are always one step ahead of us as we and the parents and carers need to be alert of that and just keep checking that the parenting controls remain because the students obviously know how to turn them off. Parents are also unaware of all the online dangers themselves. Often leaving the children unsupervised for long periods of time whilst on the internet on games consoles, particularly this year Fortnite’s been an absolute nightmare where grooming has taken place where young people have been talking to strangers over the line and you know they buy them skins.
I have had many naked pictures sent to me by parents saying oh my goodness please help my children I don’t know what to do. What they don’t actually realise is that by sharing that naked picture with me they’ve just broken the law and actually what they are doing is sharing child pornography.
They don’t report concerns very much. It’s often when the staff do spot checks online and they look at their devices that we find things.
My top ten kind of tips would be it’s all about education and making the parents and carers and the staff aware about the vulnerability of this particular group of young people.
In my group work and in the work that you do with young people we need to look at them building healthy relationships with staff and their carers so they feel that they can come to you with any concerns. It’s also looking at a healthy relationship. A lot of young people I work with don’t really understand what a healthy relationship is. They think it’s acceptable for people to emotionally abuse you or to maybe give you a slap. They think that’s acceptable because that’s what they’ve been brought up in.
Education on grooming and what that looked like, how it happens and how the grooming process works. Sexting and the law, a lot of the time when I do the group work all that comes out of it is the fact that the children don’t understand that they can have sex at sixteen which is physical and yet they can’t look at naked pictures or pornography.
That is one that comes up all the time and to be honest I’m honest with the young people and say I actually don’t know but what I do know is that you are breaking the law and you will get yourself in trouble if you do these things, if you look at pornography or you send naked pictures.
Having a safeguarding policy within your provision is paramount. The government legislation is on keeping children safe in schools and education. This is the main kind of legislation that everyone needs to be working for in order to keep people safe, and staff and carers need to report their concerns to the DSL and we will immediately react if we need to.
Monitoring is paramount in the houses that we work for, they do spot checks on the children’s devices and also have an internet safety contract where they give us their passwords and things like that.
There’s helplines out there. The Child Exploitation Online Protection Service which is out there known as CEOPS. Within that there is a Thinkuknow website which does all training for staff, professionals and it also gives online safety tips for children.
The young people do really listen and they take it onboard and they say the right things and they know how to keep themselves safe but you can guarantee that within two to three weeks I’m looking at more safeguarding reports where they’ve been sending naked pictures or they’ve been looking at inappropriate content.
I believe this specific group of young people because they are so vulnerable because of their experiences and their need and their lack of awareness, it makes them particularly vulnerable in this area.
You will have heard the family support worker talking about a range of challenges faced by children and young people in this vulnerable group. Children and young people who have experienced trauma, have developmental or intellectual disability or who are in a residential setting for these reasons are more vulnerable to the risks of the internet than those in mainstream education. They struggle more to understand and form appropriate relationships, find face-to-face social interaction challenging and lack awareness of the risks of sharing personal information.
You will have heard about a case where a young person used a parent’s credit card to gamble online, ran up a large bill and became obsessed with the activity. You have also heard about ‘Jess’, who was groomed online by someone she believed was a woman who she thought was her friend, eventually asking her to share inappropriate sexual images and was able to find her home address. This also raised the issues of sharing personal information online and leaving on ‘location service’ functions in online social networks such as Facebook or WhatsApp.
The family support worker manages online risks for this vulnerable group by:
education of staff, children, young people, parents and carers
This education should be embedded into the curriculum and wherever information technology is being used. Staff in this setting are trained three times per year to make sure they are up to date with this rapidly changing technology. Parents and carers should be educated about privacy settings, monitoring these settings and also supervision of children while they are using the internet.
carrying out individual or group work with those most at risk or where an incident has been reported
The group work allows for an honest and open conversation about information on the internet, e.g. that sites showing pornography are not ‘reality’.
- having a safeguarding policy that is regularly reviewed and updated
referring to credible and reliable resources on the topic of internet safety
An example of these resources are those from(CEOPs).
- being open and honest with the young people without the need to remove technology completely.
This encourages them to report any concerns they have, ask any questions and teach them how to use technology safely in day-to-day life, as they will have to when they are an adult.