The COVID-19 pandemic has seen many organisations shift their services and activities online in response to social distancing requirements. Organisations that previously engaged with children and young people in person are increasingly establishing new methods to engage with them online, through video conferences, online forums, and social media or over the phone.
It is positive that organisations are continuing to engage with and offer important services to children and young people during the pandemic. Provided the right safeguards are put in place, technologies can be used safely and in line with the Child Safe Standards. However, a shift to greater online and phone-based services presents a number of particular risks to child safety that need to be managed. These include:
- increased opportunities for unwanted or unsupervised contact with children
- opportunities for grooming children and young people
- potential growth in cyberbullying and abuse such as ‘trolling’
- risks of exposure to inappropriate, illicit or explicit content or imagery
- access to content that is not age-appropriate
- possible breaches of privacy, including sharing of personal or sensitive information or personal images
- scams targeting children and young people.
It is essential that organisations continue to keep the safety of children and young people front of mind when adapting their services and activities due to COVID-19. Legal obligations for organisations to comply with the Child Safe Standards (the Standards) and the Reportable Conduct Scheme (the Scheme) continue through this time.
Organisations should ensure the Standards are applied throughout all of their activities. A thorough risk assessment of any new ways of operating that have been introduced due to the pandemic will ensure organisations have identified risks of child abuse and developed mitigation strategies. Organisations should:
- Understand any opportunities for adults to have unwanted or inappropriate contact with children and young people via technologies and undertake actions to manage these risks.
This may include, for example:
- careful selection of online platforms, and the use of privacy and security settings to create a safer online environment
- the use of existing programs to monitor and filter activities
- being aware of the risks of email naming conventions using children’s real names, as it can make it easier for others to identify and contact them
- being clear on how social media will, or won’t, be used
- making parents and carers aware of any online accounts created for their children so they can further support the safety of their children online.
- Establish appropriate oversight practices and safeguards for any one-on-one contact with children over phone or video link.
Management practices may include limiting one-on-one services to situations in which a parent or carer can be in the room with the child or where parental consent is given; clearly scheduling and documenting any one-on-one contact; ensuring staff do not contact children or young people through their personal phones; or requiring staff to obtain senior authorisation or include managers in certain communications.
- Identify avenues through which children could have inappropriate, abusive or bullying contact with other children.
Organisations should communicate clear expectations for behaviour in online settings to children and young people, and where possible, establish a moderator role to oversee interactions for safety.
- Assess whether online platforms used to deliver services are secure and appropriately protect the children using them.
The eSafety Commissioner’s Tips for online collaboration tools provides guidance to work through the risks associated with online platforms and technologies.
- Obtain consent from children and young people and parents or carers for any use of their images or personal information online.
Child Family Community Australia’s resource sheet provides guidance and best practice guidelines for child safety and the use of images of children online.
Organisations should also:
- provide clear messaging about the importance of child safety in online/phone interactions, and explain to staff, parents and carers, and children and young people how you are managing the safety risks associated with these technologies
- provide clear guidelines for staff about acceptable and unacceptable forms of online and phone contact with children and young people, and convey clear consequences for breaches
- educate children and young people about how to manage privacy settings, block unwanted communications and report online abuse
- ensure all staff are aware of any reporting obligations in relation to concerns or allegations of child abuse under the Reportable Conduct Scheme.
The national eSafety Commissioner provides a range of practical resources to assist parents, children and young people and educators to stay safe online. While the resources for organisations are primarily aimed at schools and the education sector, many provide advice relevant to a wide range of organisations engaging with children and young people. Organisations are encouraged to use the resources where relevant to ensure the highest standards of child safety are maintained throughout any changes to service delivery. A great place to start is with the eSafety Commissioner’s Five steps for keeping students safe during online learning.
It is important to remember that, due to physical distancing requirements, your organisation’s contact with a child or young person may be one of very few interactions they are having outside of the home. Organisations engaging with children and young people play an important role in being alert to the safety and wellbeing of children and young people in the home environment. In situations where you have concerns, think carefully about how to safely and appropriately engage with a child or young person about their welfare.
If you suspect that a child, or any person, is being abused or may be in immediate danger, you should call ‘000’ immediately and report the matter to Victoria Police. Where you are concerned a child or young person is in need of protection, you can report to Child Protection at https://services.dhhs.vic.gov.au/reporting-child-abuse.
For questions in relation to child safety and the Standards, the Commission’s general enquiry line continues to operate on 1300 78 29 78. Please note that phones will be answered between 9.30am – 11.30am and 2.00pm – 4.00pm, Monday to Friday, and we request that you call between these times. You can also email the Commission at email@example.com and we will get back to you as soon as we can.
The eSafety Commissioner’s free resources can be found at https://www.esafety.gov.au/.
Some forms of online abuse of children and young people can be reported to the eSafety Commissioner, who may be able to help and assist in getting online content removed. For more information, go to: https://www.esafety.gov.au/report.
The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare has a useful factsheet for organisations on safeguarding children during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Australian Government also has a checklist for online safety for child safe organisations.
The Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s eSmart program supports schools to address cyber risks, bullying and cyber-bullying and helps schools to meet their duty of care.