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“He’s writing horrible things about me on Facebook…”

Sound familiar? I’ve spoken to two people recently who’ve had problems with children they look after being exposed to problems on Facebook.
Like any platform for communicating and sharing, Facebook is brilliant, but it has its perils.
This can be particularly acute when relationships are already a problem and where contact is limited. Like when children are in the care system or being looked after by kinship carers.
We are pretty hot on keeping our kids safe on the roads, from strangers, etc. But how about online?

Social media: keep the good, avoid the bad…

I need to start off by declaring an interest: I like social media. I use it often. A lot of my website traffic comes through my two Facebook pages: my personal page and my professional page.
But, like a lot of things, it has a flip-side. When things go wrong or the possibilities are mis-used.

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Online dangers…

We’ve talked before on this blog about the dangers children can face from the online world. Not least of these is bullying. Sometimes with tragic consequences.
This is good enough reason for carers of all types to be prepared and have a plan for keeping their children safe online. If you need help, try the advice from the UK Safer Internet Centre, available here.
But for kids in foster care-whether it’s mainstream fostering or kinship or family and friends care-there are unique challenges.

The past catching up…

I’ve dealt with two foster families recently whose situation has been undermined-in one case to the point of placement breakdown-by communications on social media. In these two cases it happened to be Facebook; but it could have been some other social media platform.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/RichYintage

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/RichYintage

In both cases, birth family members made unauthorised contact with their children. Now this is understandable. But the fact that these kids aren’t living with their families should make us cautious.
Had this need for caution in the online world been realised earlier, these children might not have had to suffer the breakdown of their placements.
Birth families undermining foster or kinship placements is a perennial issue. but social media is a uniquely available, direct and insidious way for children’s lives to be disrupted.

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What caution might look like…

  • Age limits – don’t let the children you care for use social media until they are old enough to do so. For Facebook it’s 13. Check out each site and enforce the age limit.
  • Personal details – ensure that children know never to share their address or other details with anyone online. This is dangerous regardless of the birth family challenge.
  • Link to them – make it a condition of using social media that you, as the carer/s, are one of their contacts. That way it’s easier for you to “observe” what goes on online.
  • Time and place limits – ensure that kids have allocated time slots for social media use and that they do so from a public place in the house (i.e. not their bedroom).
  • Check their connections – go on their profile and see if they’re connected to birth family members – if they are, and this is prohibited by the Court or is damaging to the child’s stability, block these contacts.

Employing these simple principles is a good way of getting started to help children in care stay safe and avoid the pitfalls of unsolicited contact from birth families. Or anyone else unwelcome.

Final thoughts…

The time will come in most kids lives, once they leave the care system, that they will have the choice to contact birth family members – or not. Our job is to prepare them as well as possible for that time.
I can understand the great impulse birth families must face to make contact with their kids – even where this has been prohibited by the Court. But social media isn’t the way to do it.
The best interests of children lie in such things being planned and handled properly. And only when the child is ready. Social media can short-circuit this with devastating effects.
When it happens out of the blue and undermines the stability of the child’s life, it is to be avoided at all costs!

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What do you think?

  • Are you a carer who’s had trouble with social media? How have you addressed it?
  • What advice would give other carers? 

Please let me know your thoughts…   Join in the conversation – Leave a comment below or click here.

More info…

If you’d like more information to help you understand social media generally and Facebook in particular, here are some places to start:

Related posts…

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© Jonny Matthew 2014