How can we help children in care to thrive online?
19 Jul, 2022
6 minute read

How can we help children in care to thrive online?

Children and young people in care are likely to be more vulnerable to risk online – and have less opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of digital.

Reach, a national initiative supported by Nominet, aims to change this. 

Parent Zone is working with Nominet to understand how and where children’s digital lives are shaped by the care system – and how those involved might better support  safe digital exploration.

Here, Parent Zone’s Research and Development Director, Cliff Manning, reflects on the challenges – and potential solutions. 


I remember a young person who was in care and because he was going to college, he was promised a laptop by social services, but three weeks into his college course the laptop hadn't materialised. So, I met him and he was like, I'm quitting college. - Support Worker

Care-experienced young people can face more barriers in their digital lives than those who are not in care. This could include limited access to devices, unclear rules, lack of appropriate support and more severe consequences for any mistakes they might make. As a result, their support is more fractured, the potential for harm increases and - ultimately – their opportunities are diminished.

While some of these obstacles are intended and may help protect children from harm, others arise from a lack of understanding or consideration of a young person’s needs. 

So what are the issues – and what might be done to mitigate them?

A splintered experience

Some looked-after children may have as many as 30 different professionals in their lives. In residential settings, the carers change with each shift. They may also move between care settings two or three times a year. 

Maintaining their digital life can be a challenge – let alone being able to share that experience with a trusted adult, or get consistent support and guidance.

This splintered experience is compounded by the fact that, unlike birth parents who act as a catch-all for so many aspects of children's lives, professionals tend to work within well-defined parameters. Crucial insights about children's digital lives can be lost and support can be inconsistent or difficult for young people to access.

Leaving care

We need to prepare young people for life. Do we prepare them for their digital lives? - Colette Morris, Local Area Designated Officer for Oldham

As young people grow older and leave children’s services, they often move from more structured foster and residential settings into independent or supported living. Their key everyday adult contacts also change. They face new financial, social and wellbeing challenges that can lead to new or amplified online risks. 

Independent living skills programmes don’t always include digital living skills. If they do they tend to focus on functional and employment skills, and not the equally-important social and wellbeing skills. Or knowing how to find help when things go wrong.

There are many initiatives to support those on low incomes with digital access – which you can read more about here – and some specific offers for those leaving care, they are far from universal and not easily accessible.

Lack of access plus a lack of appropriate support can easily mean care leavers experience isolation, loneliness, and more vulnerability to online harm.

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Including families

The vast majority of parents that we work with aren't bad people. A lot of them are inherently vulnerable for the wrong reasons. And actually they need to be supported to understand these issues. - Fostering Service Manager.

For some young people, including parents in their care can be too high a risk to manage. However, for a majority, the risk is more manageable. 

There is an increasing recognition of the need to include children’s families more sensitively and positively in the care system. But the role that parents of those in care – and the wider family network – might play in supporting children's digital lives is often overlooked, as is the fact that the family may need support to fulfil that role.

The value of digital

How well is the system understanding the digital reality for children and how well are they using that knowledge? - Ben Collins, Research in Practice Associate

If we fail to recognise that children's lives blend online and offline experiences – and value them equally – then crucial information about their needs is not gathered, shared or actioned appropriately. In order to support the blended on/offline nature of children's lives, the way the system is framed, set-up and managed needs reconfiguring.

Emerging responses

Over the last few months, Parent Zone has been speaking with professionals from across the sector to develop an understanding of the points within the care system that most impact on young people's digital lives. 

Clear challenges are beginning to emerge – as are potential areas to explore in the future. These could include:

  • Children in Care councils

Hearing from children and young people themselves is integral to effective training, practice and policies. 

Children in Care councils are driving innovation around digital access, support and inclusion. They provide a channel to amplify young people's views and can be active contributors to system change. 

There are many examples of this in action at both local and national levels. However, they are not always linked or sustainable.

Next, Parent Zone and Nominet want to consider how support for Children in Care councils or similar groups might be targeted in a way that builds on existing work and collaboration, as well as connecting them to increase reach and impact.

  • Better information-sharing

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care highlighted the need for improved information-sharing at all levels. It’s important that information about children's digital lives – their experiences, preferences, concerns, triumphs and opportunities – is also considered. 

Tools such as the UK Council for Internet Safety’s Digital Passport or Adoption North East’s communication management module provide models for how this may be managed in practice. However, for these tools to be truly effective they need to be situated in a system that values digital and is set up to respond to digital needs.

Going forward, we want to consider how data about children's digital experiences are collected and have a place in the systems already in use – and how we might reframe those systems to better reflect those experiences.

  • Reframing for a whole system response

Any response needs to link all areas of care and all the professionals, carers and family members that shape young people's digital experiences.

There have been significant changes around multi-agency working and more child-centred processes in children's services but often digital strategies are not as holistic or integrated as needed for young people. 

Future work will look into how services might place digital at the forefront of collaboration, training, support and information sharing.

What next?

This is just a starting point. We welcome any feedback and suggestions on both the challenges that impact care experienced young people’s digital experience and the systematic opportunities to boost or create change. 

For further information about the Nominet Reach programme or to discuss any insights, please get in touch.

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