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1.5.3 Social Networking Information for Children’s Social Care Staff, Foster Carers and Prospective Adopters


The scope of this guidance is to provide general information about social networking as well as highlighting aspects of social networking that apply particularly to children and young people who are looked after or have been adopted.

It is important that carers and staff who work with Children Looked After understand the opportunities and dangers that social networking can present to this group of vulnerable children and young people, and how best to support them in learning about safe use of the internet and social networking sites.

Where a child or young person has been adopted, social networking can provide a way for birth parents and the child to reconnect.


Child Safety Online: A practical guide for parents and carers whose children are using social media


  1. What is Social Networking?
  2. Why is Social Networking Attractive to Children and Young People?
  3. Basic Safety and Parental Controls
  4. Confidentiality and Privacy
  5. What are the Issues Specific to All Children and Young People?
  6. Common Sense Internet Rules for Everyone in the Family
  7. Password Security
  8. What are the Issues Specific to Children Looked After?
  9. Foster Carer Tips
  10. What are the Issues for Children Who Have Been Adopted?
  11. Adoptive Parenting Tips
  12. Contacting Birth Relatives Through Social Media

1. What is Social Networking?

Social networking is a term that is used to describe some of the ways in which people communicate online via their computers or mobile phones.

Some common elements of social networking online are:

  • Membership of a website is required;
  • A personal profile can be created that tell others about themselves;
  • There is the ability to add other people as online friends or contacts;
  • Members of the website can communicate among themselves.

2. Why is Social Networking Attractive to Children and Young People?

Social networking has become a very popular way for young people to organise their lives and keep in contact with their friends. It is a tool to share information, gossip, photos, arrange social gatherings and invite friends to events. Preventing young people from engaging with social networking sites can mark them out as different to their peers and can exclude them for social activities and friendship groups. Online communication has many advantages over more traditional forms of communication such as:

  • Many people can be contacted all at once;
  • Communication is free or relatively cheap depending on internet / phone contracts;
  • Messaging can be open or private;
  • Communication is controllable in that a response does not have to be provided, it can be lengthy or a quick comment;
  • Make new friends or contacts easily;
  • Distance / country is not important;
  • Communication does not have to be in 'real time' or can be instant;
  • Young people have grown up using computers and phones and are confident in their use;
  • Not all young people feel confident in face to face settings.

3. Basic Safety and Parental Controls

Basic Safety

Basic internet safety starts with ensuring that you have adequate and update protective software installed on every PC or tablet that is used in your household. Anti virus software will protect your PC or tablet from damage from a variety of viruses such as:

  • Virus - a program that installs itself without your knowledge and often runs covertly in the background, often damaging files;
  • Worm - a type of virus, which replicates itself and is usually transmitted by email. It tends to only be apparent after your PC or tablet slows down;
  • Trojan - a virus program that often sits benignly hidden until it is triggered by some event such as installing some software. The Trojan can deploy both viruses and worms and in some cases even take complete control of your PC or tablet.

Anti virus software checks all incoming traffic including web pages, emails, attachments, instant messaging and downloaded files for signs of viruses.

Both firewall and anti spyware software prevents others seeing 'who' you are. A firewall is a program that filters information coming through your internet connection onto your PC or tablet. It acts like a barrier and keeps a list of rules detailing what can and cannot pass between your PC or tablet and the internet.

Spyware is software, which downloads onto your PC or tablet and collects information about you and what you like to do on the internet. It downloads without your permission, often hidden in other programmes. It does not damage your PC or tablet but it can:

  • Adware is a type of spyware that generate endless pop up adverts on your screen, slowing or making web access impossible;
  • Redirect and control your web searches;
  • Modify your internet settings so you could end up paying expensive connection fees;
  • Certain spyware can alter your firewall settings so you have more unwanted information and software;
  • Some spyware can capture your credit and debit card details for fraud;
  • Malware is a type of spyware that records key stokes made on a keyboard to capture passwords etc;
  • A keylogger is a device that can be fitted to a keyboard. It then records each keystroke that a person makes on the keyboard. The keylogger saves this information for retrieval at a later date.

Parental Controls

Although there is an enormous amount of useful information and fun available through the internet, there is also a great deal of unsuitable material that you would not want a child or young person to access. Installing parental control software at home is not fool proof. It does not eliminate a young person's curiosity or developing knowledge of how computers work, nor does it limit access to the internet from other people's PCs, tablets and mobile phones. It does however, provide a starting point and helps to set a 'Family Internet Code', whereby a set of established rules can help young people understand the dangers and gives them a sense of responsibility.

Discuss these rules with everyone in the household and put a note near the computer as a reminder. Monitor compliance with these rules, especially when it comes to the amount of time a young person spends online. Excessive use of online services especially late at night, may be a clue that there might be a problem

4. Confidentiality and Privacy

It is important to be aware of issues of confidentiality on social networking sites. Children and young people have a right to privacy; no one should publish information about a child or young people without first checking with those who have parental responsibility. It would not be appropriate for foster carers or residential officers to post any information about the children in their care, especially photos.

Photographs that are posted on site can be viewed by a wider audience than originally anticipated and can be difficult or even impossible to remove once posted. For example, one of the most popular features on Facebook is 'tagging', which gives the user the ability to identify and name the individual people that appear in the photos, videos or notes that they post.

Facebook can also draw conclusions from the address information held in user profiles and from the 'tagging' of photographs. Facebook is able to correctly identify the location of where photos have been taken and will offer this information to users to confirm in their profile photo albums etc. This information can help someone else find out where you live, where you go at different times of the day etc.

Facebook has a number of privacy settings. These allow a user to decide who can see what on their Facebook pages and must be reviewed regularly as the options can be updated from time to time by Facebook. It is worth remembering that even with the strongest privacy settings, once material is published it could be seen by anyone and can be very hard to erase. It is always worth users regularly checking content they may be featured in.

Realistically, a Facebook user's privacy is only as secure as their least private Facebook friend.

5. What are the Issues Specific to All Children and Young People?

Social networking is now a fact of modern life and in reality it can be very difficult to prevent young people from using it. Many young people will be able to access it at friend's houses and on their mobile phones. Preventing them from taking part in social networking could lead to social exclusion amongst their peers.

Social networking can be a positive experience but at the same time it can raise concerns for those with responsibilities for children, whether their own or children in foster care. Understanding what children and young people are doing when they are online, having regular and open dialogue with them, being alert to the possibilities offered by social networking and monitoring its usage are important to minimise the risks associated with it.

When appraising 'risk', it is important to put that risk into context. Statistically, probably the greatest risk is that a child will encounter people in chat rooms and social networking sites who are mean or unpleasant. Another 'risk' is that a young person will spend a lot of wasted time in areas that are not very productive. The more involvement that you have in a young person's online life, the more you can be assured of their safety.

Cyber bullying

Social networking sites can be used as a tool for bullying amongst children and young people. This can take the form of abusive or intimidating messages being sent to the young person or threats being posted on their wall.

As with any form of bullying, cyber bullying can be traumatic and isolating for the individual. Encourage those in your care to be open with you about their relationships with their peers and be aware of changes in their behaviour that may suggest they are being bullied. Keeping the computer in a shared 'family' space will also help you to keep an eye on things.

If a child or young person in your care is being bullied, remind them that they can block and 'de-friend' those that are bullying them. If necessary, they can close their account and set up a new one which they keep more private. Encourage the young person not to respond to abusive messages but forward a copy to the service provider and ask for their assistance. Some schools treat cyber bullying as a school matter, so contact then to see if they can offer support.


Often, adults who want to engage children in sexual acts, or talk to them for sexual gratification will seek out young people who desire friendship. Social networking sites offer a route for them to target young people. They will often use a number of grooming techniques including:

  • Building trust with the child through lying;
  • Creating different personas and then attempting to engage the child in more intimate forms of communication including compromising a child with the use of images and webcams;
  • The use of blackmail and guilt can be used as a way of setting up a meeting with the child.

Children and young people in foster or residential care may be particularly vulnerable to approaches from strangers or people they hardly know online because of their past experiences. This will be especially true if they feel isolated from their peers. They may lack normal boundaries.

Being open with young people in care about the potential dangers and supportive of attempts to improve their social skills will help and in some cases this will need to be very carefully monitored to prevent a vulnerable young person from being groomed.

The social worker can support foster carer(s) in several ways:

  • Sharing information about adults who may pose a risk to the young person;
  • Assess and review risk;
  • Document agreed actions in the placement plan;
  • Provide support and help in contacting safeguarding police where a child or young person has been having inappropriate conversations / contact usually over social media. It is important that foster carers wait to see if the police can retrieve information to add to evidence for any prosecutions before deleting content.

    For information see THINKUKNOW website for Parents and Carers.

Inappropriate material

A young person may be exposed to material that is sexual, hateful, violent in nature or encourages dangerous or illegal activities. This may include websites that promote internet assisted suicide, are pro-anorexia, pro-terrorist or are of a morbid nature.

Online betting and gambling

Under the Gambling Act, which came into force in 2005, any company that holds a licence for online gaming in the UK must carry out stringent checks to prevent children playing highly-addictive games. The Gambling Commission found that just over 33% of online casinos and bookmakers had 'deficiencies' that could enable young people to gamble on the internet.

The commission's figures, which emerged in Parliamentary answers 2009, were compiled using debit cards belonging to under 18 year olds to find out whether the sites had loopholes that meant young people who wanted to bet were not weeded out.

Many UK banks provide debit cards such as visa electron, solo and switch to under 18's and some debit cards from certain banks are available to children as young as 11 years old. Current figures from APACS (Association for Payment Clearing Services) estimate that 45% of all 16 and 17 year olds own a debit card, which is around 675,000 young people. This figure does not include young people between 11 and 15 who may also own a solo or visa electron debit card. The overall figure is therefore more likely to be nearer to a million under 18 card holders.

This prevalence of debit cards for under 18's is important as online gambling and betting sites accept these cards as means of setting up an account, although there are question marks regarding the operators ability to distinguish between customers under the age for gambling and those over the age. The majority of sites don't appear to employ any age or ID verification systems, thus potentially allowing children as young as 11 to register and gamble.

As a parent or carer it is important to consider what security measures you do or don't have in place for protecting unauthorised use of your debit and credit cards.

Most online transactions only require the provision of the long card number, the card start / expiry dates, the name on the front of the card and the last three digits of the secure code on the back - all easily available if you have the card in your hand. Keep your cards in a safe place and regularly check where they are.

An extra layer of security can be added into completing online transactions. Most banks and credit card companies offer either Verified by Visa and Mastercard Secure Code services. These services ask you to set up additional password protection for online transactions.

It's against the law for online gambling websites to allow anyone under 18 to gamble or for someone under 18 to gamble with money, credit cards or debit cards. However many online gambling websites do not make the necessary checks to stop under-18s from gambling. There is parental control software that can be installed to prevent under-18s from gambling online

Mobile Phones

Mobile phones can offer freedom and independence and are an excellent way for young people to communicate with friends. They provide important safety benefits too, enabling a young person to make contact and be contacted; they can also act as a location finder for emergency services.

There are however, risks when using mobile phones:

  • Bullying;
  • Theft of expensive mobile handsets;
  • Photos / videos are easy to take and can be forwarded on without the subjects permission;
  • Difficult to monitor as a parent, as young people tend to use their phones in private or send text messages;
  • Advertising / sales pressures where a young person can be tempted to subscribe to services without realising the costs involved. For example, downloading ring tones or voting for reality TV shows;
  • Where a mobile phone has full internet access, the same safety measures for surfing on the web become just as important;
  • Mobile phones are seen as every day objects and as such it can be very difficult for a parent or carer to monitor and supervise access and contacts in the same way as they can when using a computer. Some phone operators can provide age verification or filter systems. However, a determined child or young person will be able to find ways around such measures and again good communication is the key to keeping children and young people safe;
  • Where a mobile phone has full internet access any status updates made by text message to Facebook will automatically show the location of the update on the user's Facebook profile. This information can help someone else find out where you live, where you go at different times of the day etc. The location can be removed but this must be done before the update text message is sent. For more information go to the Facebook Help Centre and search for 'About Location Services'.

6. Common Sense Internet Rules for Everyone in the Family

Information Type Advice
Date and place of birth Never reveal your full birth details as these can be used for identification theft
Holidays plans Giving forward details of your holiday plans or updating your status to say that you are leaving the house to go out shopping can leave you vulnerable to theft
Home address Can leave you open to uninvited visitors
Confessionals Bad mouthing work colleagues or posting details about certain lifestyle choices can lead to disciplinary action at your place of work or at worst being fired
Risky behaviours Could stop you getting insurance if you are seen to be putting your life in danger
Avoid posting
  • Photos that reveal the layout of your home and show your valuables can be a 'gift' to thieves;
  • Photos that show your life styles choices might not be appropriate to share with everyone. Once posted they can be extremely difficult to remove from the public domain. Be aware that photos in which you appear can be posted by other people and you may be 'tagged' in them.
Profile details Your personal details including any profile photo can appear in a Google search unless you block your profile from appearing in search engines. This can be prevented by using the sites privacy settings
Illegal activities If you post details about any illegal activities you have been involved in you could be reported to relevant authorities
Phone numbers Can leave you open to be called by anyone
Password clues Avoid publishing the names of your pets or your mother's maiden name, especially if you use these details in your banking passwords

7. Password Security

One of the problems with passwords and pass codes is that it can be difficult to remember them and in an effort to not forget them, simple things like the name of a pet or dates of birth are used. This makes it very easy for a hacker or someone you know to guess your passwords. These simple steps will help you create a more secure password / pass code:

  • Do not use personal information - easy for others to find your basic details and you may have published the details yourself on line;
  • Do not use real words - computer tools are available to hackers that try every word in the dictionary;
  • Mix different character types - use both upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols such a & or %;
  • Use a pass phrase - think up a sentence or a line from a song or book that you like and create a password using the first letter of each word;
  • Use different passwords / codes for each login you are protecting - if one gets found out, the others are still safe;
  • Change you passwords / codes - at least every 60 days;
  • Do not re-use a password / code for at least one year.

How to keep your passwords and pass codes safe:

  • Do not keep using a default or reset password / code - change it after you have used it once;
  • Never give our password / code out in an email;
  • Don't leave your passwords / codes lying around - keep them hidden and locked away;
  • Do not use computers at internet cafes or in hotel business centres if you want to access a website that requires a login - you can not be sure they are fully protected from spyware, keyloggers and other malware (see Section 4, Basic Safety and Parental Controls). Basic safety and parental controls;
  • Do not give your password out to anyone on a game site, even if they claim to be a member of staff;
  • Never respond to an email asking for your password, especially if the email asks you to confirm your login details or they will close your account. This type of email will ask you to follow a specific link to a site, which then asks you for your login and password (the email will very often look 'real' and use familiar logos). This type of email is called 'phishing' and is a common method used to commit fraud. For more help and advice on 'phishing' see the Financial Fraud Action UK Website.

8. What are the Issues Specific to Children Looked After?

Foster carers, social workers and residential staff need to understand both the opportunities and risks associated with social networking for children and young people in general. However, this must be viewed within the context of the overall plan for the young person and in particular, any specific contact arrangements that are in place or reviewed.

Maintaining and building relationships are particularly pertinent to children and young people in foster or residential care and need to be addressed in a positive way.

By facilitating contact with friends and siblings and even parents, social networking sites can be invaluable in allowing young people in care to maintain important relationships. Social networks can be vital for children and young people in care to maintain as 'normal' a life as possible, through interacting with their peers on a equal basis. It can allow them to keep in touch with their friends especially if they have to move home to an entirely new area.

Children and young people need help to ensure that they have contact with those that they want to. There may be relationships that the young person does not want to maintain and relationships where considerations such as safeguarding make it inappropriate for them to stay in contact. Foster carers, residential staff and social workers will need to monitor online relationships as they would in the 'real world' and support young people to ensure that they understand why it is important to consider how, and with whom, they interact on social networking sites.

Social networking sites can appear to threaten carefully designed contact arrangements. For example, a child's care plan may state that they are to have no contact at all with particular members of their family or there could be a no contact order in place from the court. Foster carers, residential staff and social workers must be clear with children and young people in care about the possibility of being contacted by 'unsafe' people through social networking sites or in any other way. The social worker must discuss this potential situation with the young person when looking at any contact arrangements that have been made as part of the care plan.

Contact issues must be addressed at every child's review meeting and a comprehensive and detailed safe contact plan, which includes how to manage social networking, put in place for those children for whom this is necessary. The IRO (Independent Reviewing Officer) has a key role to play here. See Children and Young People in Care Reviews Procedure.

Children and young people in care can be particularly vulnerable and sometimes withdrawn, lonely and lacking in confidence. Social networking can be their link to the world and a place in which they feel they have lots of friends and they are important. However, the young person might use social networking sites to retreat from the 'real world' and from developing productive face to face relationships. A balance can be struck by limiting a young person's time on the computer, preferably through encouragement and discussion or through the use of parental computer controls.

9. Foster Carer Tips

If you are using social networking sites then you will be in a better position to understand what it is the children and young people in your care are doing and in turn help them to be safer online. For example:

  • If you are on Facebook then you can be 'friends' with the young people in your care and can keep an eye on their Facebook page;
  • Get to know the sites that the young person you care for uses. If you don't know how to log on, get the young person to show. Find out more about the site and whether there are settings to block out objectionable material;
  • By understanding how to use privacy settings for your own social networking sites you can ensure that the young person can hide their profile in searches and block unwanted contact;
  • Work to create openness about social networking with the all the children in your care, encourage foster children to tell you if their family is in contact with them online. Ask to see the messages that are being sent.

There are some simple steps that you can take to mitigate the negative aspects of using social networking sites for the children and young people in your family:

  • Ensure that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) 'panic button' has been installed on any social media profile where it is available to do so. The panic button is an application aimed at children and teenagers that allows them to easily report suspected abuse to CEOP. The application has to be added by the user themselves, even if they are under 18.
  • Avoid posting photos that give out clues as to where a child lives or goes to school as this could help others to trace the young person;
  • Never allow a child to arrange a face to face meeting with someone they meet online without parental permission. If a meeting is arranged, make the first one in a public place and go with the young person;
  • Have the computer situated in a shared 'family' space such as the lounge and ensure that all computers have updated virus protection;
  • Make sure that that everyone in your household who is using social networks is aware of their security settings and how to change them if they need to;
  • Make sure that all young people in the household know not to download programs to the computer without checking with you first;
  • Talk with your children about internet safety and privacy. If your child is computer savvy, ask them to do the research on suggested privacy settings, common mistakes that reveal identifying information etc and ask them to teach you;
  • Establish common sense rules for your child's use of the internet;
  • Accept that you do not have complete control. As your child gets into the middle and upper teens, you will have little ability to prevent them from doing anything, especially on the internet. It is more productive to go on the 'journey' with them.

The Home Office They have produced a website for children about safety and the internet, see the THINKUKNOW website.

10. What are the Issues for Children Who Have Been Adopted?

A growing number of adopted children are searching for their birth relatives using social networking sites and the wider internet. It has become easier to trace their birth parents and other relatives by searching for their names or photos. This bypasses the traditional safeguards that are usually put in place to protect both children and birth parents.

Under British law, adopted children must wait until they are 18 before they can apply for their original birth certificates although they can sometimes maintain contact with their birth family, directly or through intermediaries. At the moment, official contact in adoption is made through the 'letterbox' process. The adoptive parents send the birth family a letter and photos every year via a social worker or adoption agency intermediary. If the birth parent wants to respond, they also have to go through this route.

Since 2005 birth relatives including parents have had the legal right to ask an adoption agency to let their adopted children know that they want to get in touch. However, some birth parents are flouting the usual controls and safeguards and are using social networking sites to track down their children and instigate intrusive and unplanned communication.

Birth parents are increasingly setting up specific Facebook profiles in the names of their birth children following the adoption of said children. These profiles can be extremely upsetting for the adoptive family and they may contain campaigns and references by the birth family to 'finding and getting the child back home'. Where the child is under 13 years old, the profile can be reported to Facebook as an underage profile for them to remove.

Photographs of the adopted child / young person can appear in these profiles or indeed within the birth parent's own Facebook profile as the main profile picture. The birth family might also post photographs on Facebook that have been provided by the adoptive parents through a 'letterbox' arrangement. The following steps can be taken to reduce the risk of birth parents putting post adoption photos on the internet:

  • Use of a voluntary adoption contract between birth parent(s) and adoptive parents for how the 'letter box' arrangement will work including an agreement from the birth parent(s) not to publish post adoption photographs on the internet (including networking sites). Possible consequences for breaking the agreement could be the termination / suspension of the 'letter box' arrangement;
  • Agree to provide photographs as long as the birth family view them in the offices of the adoption agency - with staff in attendance to prevent photographs being copied using a mobile phone;
  • Let the birth parents know that photographs and other items will be put into a 'memory box' and that the child, when old enough and if they want, can pass this onto the birth family to keep;
  • Provide older photos where the child is younger and less recognisable;
  • Provide photos that don't show the child's features in too much detail e.g. photos taken from a distance or in fancy dress or the face is partially hidden by a hat;
  • Instead of a photo provide a self portrait made by the child, or a hand / foot print in paint;
  • Photographic images on mugs or key rings are harder to reproduce.

How to report unauthorised publication of photos on Facebook

Facebook can be contacted and asked to remove the offending photograph(s) by following these steps:

  1. Log into your Facebook account and navigate to 'Report a privacy violation'. If you do not have a Facebook profile you can use this web address to bring up the same online form to fill in;
  2. On the form, you will need to provide the relevant details, as follows: Your full name, your child's full name and date of birth, your postal address, your phone number, your email address and the web address of where the photo of your child is;
  3. Once all this is done, you will be at the bottom of the report page where you will be asked to agree that you "declare, under penalty of perjury, that you are the legal guardian of, or have parental rights for, the child under 13 years old depicted in the photo" that you are reporting. Select "Agree";
  4. Finally, you will be asked to provide your electronic signature. This simply means that you need to enter the exact name that appears on your FaceBook profile. If you do not have a FaceBook profile, just enter your real first and last name;
  5. Click the Submit button;
  6. Check Facebook in a few days to verify that the photo has been removed.

The exponential growth of social networking sites such as Facebook has had far reaching consequences for what has previously been a closely managed process for tracing, contact and reunion in adoption. Making contact via Facebook circumvents all of this and increases the possibility that the young person tries to satisfy their natural curiosity alone, in secret and without support.

The challenge for adoptive parents is the ability to talk to their children with confidence about all the issues; from recognising the child's natural curiosity and need for information to maintaining the child's privacy, safety and wellbeing.

The key is for adoptive parents to get involved and help their children find answers to their questions and by showing that they are open to talking about the adoption and the birth family, the child may be more likely to open up if he or she is contacted by a birth relative or makes contact themselves.

11. Adoptive Parenting Tips

  • Talk with your children about adoption, early and often. Adoption should be a topic that everyone in the family feels comfortable to discuss. Don't stop talking in the teenage years when it can be more difficult to communicate;
  • As your child grows up, pay attention to their need for more information. Ask them if they are happy with the amount of contact they have with their birth family, parents and siblings. Ask them if they wish they had more information about their birth family and about their adoption;
  • Become a source of information and support for your child's nature desire for information on where he or she came from. Children and young people are less likely to 'go underground' if they know that you won't be upset and will actually help;
  • If you have little information and your child wants more, work with your child and the adoption agency about ways to get as much information as possible. Especially if your child was adopted from another country;
  • Seek help from the post adoption support team.

12. Contacting Birth Relatives Through Social Media

Facebook has become a valuable tool for searching for people in general. The factors that contribute to the attraction of searching on Facebook include:

  • Ease of searching anonymously;
  • Insight I to a person's life;
  • Perceived distance between the adoptee and biological family;
  • Possibility of contact with other members of birth family in addition to birth parents;
  • Crosses geographical boundaries;
  • Outside of legal processes such as adoption registries.

The most significant risk for adoptees using Facebook to search for their birth family is privacy. If a young person is determined to use Facebook to search for and make contact with a birth relative it would be advisable to make a separate Facebook account specifically for birth family contact, adjusting the control settings accordingly. Once a possible biological family member has been identified it would be advisable to send a private email through Facebook rather than making a 'friend request' or writing on the person's 'wall'.