FOSTERING DIGITAL SAFETY
James Sykes is a qualified teacher and an expert trainer in the area of safeguarding children. In this blog, James will be discussing the integral topic of foster parenting in a digital age, highlighting the risks and rewards of social media and providing advice on how to help foster children remain safe on the web.
HOW TO BECOME MORE HUMAN IN THE DIGITAL AGE
One of the primary concerns for parents, foster carers, educators and prosecutors in the modern age is the safety and welfare of foster children and young people online. We are worried about online bullying and paedophiles grooming our children. We are concerned that technology is making children unfeeling robots, incapable of having ‘real’ relationships, addicted to Facebook and porn, wedded to screens and virtual friends. They are losing what it means to be human. Yet what we want for our children is that they display human qualities, respect, understanding, empathy and the idea they do, or experience, no harm in the offline as well as the online world.
How do we ensure the best of us is manifest online? How do we navigate the complexities of an environment that bears little resemblance to the landscape we grew up in? The ongoing ‘digital revolution’ has been likened to the first industrial revolution in its scale and social impacts; a reimagining of the very fabric of our communities and society. We no longer need to be in physical proximity with others to engage them, we can now FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, Tweet or text people in real time across the globe. As a safeguarding practitioner I am primarily concerned with how we understand the environment foster children and young people inhabit online, where these issues exist and how we as those wanting to protect them engage with the issue in an informed, proactive and helpful way.
Perhaps our current concerns about the internet can be viewed in these terms – that the online world sits on a continuum from the development of language, through the written word, the printed word and now the instantly communicated digital word. Marshall McLuhan was of the opinion that the human need to communicate exploits any technology available to it. Technology is an organising factor in the development of the modern world and as we embraced the printing press and radio we should embrace foster children’s use of the internet.
I often hear parents, foster carers and professionals say ‘children don’t interact with each other anymore’. My response to this is that children communicate much more than we ever did, they are in almost constant contact with each other, making hundreds of connections with scores of people, every day. Children’s emotional landscape is enmeshed in the online environment, many of their relationships, both good and bad, play out there. If we minimise their experience by conceptualising it as ‘only virtual’ or in some way fake it closes down opportunities for children to share their experiences, to ask for support and to describe their lives. Perhaps our task is to positively shape their communication rather than control it?
In developing our understanding of these interactions we stand a much better chance of safeguarding foster children and young people. We can seek their advice, ask for the benefit of their experience and learn from them. This renewed partnership has a better chance of minimising the risks and exploiting the opportunities the internet undoubtedly provides.
So how do we achieve this? Firstly, we understand the rewards. Friendship, contact, support, understanding, love, care, community, empathy, shared interests, games, excitement, pleasure, status, popularity, fun, sex, music, an instructional video on how to do your make-up and a cute cat clip, in other words, life is online. If we’re not talking about what foster children and young people do online we’re not talking about what they do. Does our embarrassment in talking about some of these issues outweigh our desire to protect?
Secondly, we accept that this is the case. We don’t decry those halcyon days, we sit with, and listen to children, we ask them to educate us. We don’t necessarily condone but we do, at least, contemplate a position that is empathic.
Thirdly, without alarm we ask them to show us their world… 4chan, Chat Roulette and The Silk Road. We learn, we grow, we make connections with our children, and within these relationships we articulate our concerns and ask for reassurance. We ask questions: What do you think my concerns are? Do you know how to block people? Who would you turn to if this online life was upsetting or troubling you? What advice would you give someone who was worried about things online?
Fourthly, we repeat. Often.
We need to take a step forward, we as concerned adults need to do better. How do we teach foster children the value of connection? Do we talk about friendship and how to develop it? Do we articulate what it means to be human? Children are actively engaged with this environment from ever younger ages, what we want is that the engagement is safe. We also want our children to engage in this world in human ways. We can model the behaviour we expect to children, we can develop boundaries and ensure safeguards are in place. I’m entirely convinced that parents, foster carers, schools and others can work ‘with’ children in participative ways to develop more sophisticated approach. It is essential that we engage with children as ‘experts in the field’.
A new world beginning means an old one ends. Those who thrive adapt, change and embrace that change. In order to be more human in the digital age you must first of all be ‘in’ the digital age. The distinction for children between the on and offline worlds is obsolete. How can we hope to educate foster children if we ourselves are uneducated?
My final words? Take a course. Open an account. Learn from your children. Explain. Explore. Engage.