Photo: Ian L/Freerangestock

Children and young people come into care from challenging backgrounds where, in some cases, their parents have taken little or no interest in their online activities, where there have been few rules and boundaries around their online behaviour, and where they have had poor role models.

What’s more, children and young people in care who have problems like low self-esteem, anger, impulsiveness, depression, anxiety or a tendency to seek out risky activities can be more vulnerable than their peers to getting into difficulties when interacting with others on social media.

There’s often a focus on the risks but of course there are some very positive things about social networking which are easily overlooked. Young people in foster care can use digital technologies and social networking to support their emotional and social wellbeing in many ways, from strengthening their friendships to finding support with their problems and information about their rights and planning their next steps in education. When they are separated from their family and friends, social networking is another way of keeping in touch, along with the usual methods of face to face visits, phone calls, texts and instant messaging.

In some cases, of course, children in the care system are in closed placements for their own safety – but it’s not difficult for a determined child or young person to make contact online with family members and other people they are not meant to be in touch with. For others there’s a risk of inadvertently giving away their location through location-sharing websites and features such as digital photographs, geolocation and “find my friends” apps on smartphones. This could potentially lead to abusers or traffickers knowing where they are living.

Foster carers are at the sharp end of all this. Some foster carers are very internet-savvy and have all kinds of safeguards in place. But there are still many who lack the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to engage with children and young people about their use of the internet and social networking. Some still don’t understand that a child can access the internet via his X-Box games console. Some think they don’t need to concern themselves with internet safety until the child is a teenager.

If you manage a fostering agency, do you know what devices your foster carers have in their homes, and what devices the children in the placement have access to? How much do your foster carers know about setting passwords, using parental controls and “safe search”, limiting children’s access to harmful sites or using security settings on routers to prevent children from accessing the internet from their bedrooms in the middle of the night? Do they know which sites the children are using and what these sites are all about? How can you help them with all this through training and supervision?

Agencies also need to support their foster carers with the complex task of striking the right balance between protecting and supervising the child and allowing him some privacy, freedom and independence.

Many agencies now provide guidelines and agreements on internet use and social media for foster families to use. These need to reflect the real world foster carers are living in. How the children and young people in their care use the internet is an important part of keeping them safe, and should also be covered along with other issues in the child’s placement plan and reviews so that there is clarity for everyone. Together with the child’s social worker and their own supervising social worker, the child himself and possibly his parents too, foster carers need to be involved in decisions about the child’s use of social networking, what rules are needed and what form and level of supervision - and perhaps also monitoring, in some cases - would be appropriate. Much will depend on the child’s age but they should also take into account his emotional maturity and any previous problematic experiences online, for example with cyberbullying, contact with risky people, or use of online pornography, gambling or hate sites.

Filtering, monitoring and parental controls all have their place. But some children and young people are savvy enough to be able to bypass these. And some will simply go under the radar to do their exploring away from home. So these technological measures are not the only way, nor the most important way, to protect children online. The way children use social networking and the internet is a reflection of what’s going on in their lives and in their heads. Are foster carers asking them about their online lives? If children are communicating online with family members, how is that affecting them? Knowing the context of a child’s or young person’s online activities and social networking is all-important. Only then can you offer appropriate guidance and support. If a child or young person is getting involved online with risky individuals or communities, if he is being drawn into harmful activities, what is driving it? If it’s because they are lonely and isolated, or have low self-esteem and desperate for someone to make them feel good about themselves, or are seeking an adrenalin rush, perhaps we should be thinking about what needs they are trying to meet, and whether we can reach out to them and help them meet those needs in other, more positive, ways?

So it’s not all about understanding the technology – far from it. Some conversations might be difficult ones to have but foster carers are skilled at building trusting relationships with the children and young people in their care. That relationship is a key part of keeping children safe. If a foster carer can gain the young person’s trust, there’s a greater chance that he will come and ask for help if he is having problems, whether online or in real life. Similarly, foster carers need to know that they can be open with their agency and ask for help and support when they need it. Does the culture of your agency encourage this?

Children and young people are always reluctant to admit to adults that they have messed up, but foster carers need to make it clear to the child that he won’t get in trouble if he has made mistakes or been taken in by someone online. A child who feels he can ask for help is less likely to be destroyed by bullying or sucked in by online grooming and blackmail. Talking with him about what can happen – without trying to scare him - could increase his ability to recognise a scam, to think twice about sharing that shocking video clip or sending that naked selfie, to hear alarm bells ringing loud and clear when he is approached by someone with bad intentions.

Foster carers can ask children about their thoughts and experiences, they can learn to play their favourite games with them, and by being “present” and interested in children's online lives, they can help them manage online behaviour and relationships successfully.  By building a child’s empathy and respect for others, foster carers can help a child use social networking wisely.

To develop the digital literacy skills they need, children and young people must have the opportunity to use the internet and social networking – just as their peers do. With the right training and support from their agency, foster carers can feel more confident and less anxious and can help the children in their care to learn to navigate the online world as safely as possible.

Eileen Fursland is a freelance writer specialising in issues affecting children and young people