The current crisis means that a lot of us - TDI included - have moved to delivering our services online. However, as several high profile incidents have made clear, this can create new vulnerabilities. Our calls can be infiltrated by strangers who display inappropriate images or videos, and the anonymity of the internet can make it easier for people to groom children, vulnerable adults or their carers. Based on feed-back and best practice from those we work with, these are the key things we should think about when we're running online sessions.
For those of us who deliver face-to-face services - be they classes and lessons, faith groups, peer-support sessions or lectures - the last few months have been spent working out how to replicate our work online. We're now familiar with Zoom, Skype, Facebook video, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and any number of other video-sharing platforms. However, while we've got our heads around how to make these sessions work, it has been harder to think through how to make sure our sessions are as safe as we can make them.
Moving sessions online creates two risks. One is that the anonymity of the internet will allow people to falsify their identity and use our sessions to target or groom children, vulnerable adults, and their carers. This will be easier on platforms with permanent public accounts - such as Facebook - where people can follow participants from our sessions, using their 'shared interest' in our session to form a bond. The other major risk is of people hijacking our sessions, using them to screenshare inappropriate material. This is more of a risk on platforms like Zoom, where participants can use short-term fake accounts to disrupt and then move on.
We are not going to be able to remove these risks entirely, particularly from sessions where we want participants to be able to interact with each other. However, by incorporating safety into our planning, we can considerably reduce the dangers. Here are some things we should think about:
- Are we using the right platform for our session? Platforms offer different amounts of interactivity and control. If we're delivering a session where we don't expect the participants to interact - for instance, if we're delivering a lecture or a workout class - we probably don't need a platform which involves user accounts and signing in. Something like Youtube would work fine - our session can go up as a video, we can disable comments and everyone can access it individually. We can create a similar effect in Zoom by turning off everyone's cameras, muting their microphones and preventing them from screensharing.
- Who can access the session? We don't want it to be open to all if we're allowing people to interact - that is an invitation for mischief. We will want people to pre-register, either to gain a password to access the session (for platforms like Zoom) or to access the private group the session will appear on (for platforms like Facebook). On platforms with public user accounts, like Facebook, we can check that the person is who they say they are, that their account wasn't created in the recent past, that they're not using stock images rather than their own (which we can check using a reverse image search).
- Who controls the session? It's best practice to have a second person administering your session while you lead the activities. This person can control access if the platform has a 'waiting room' function, check at the beginning of the session that webcam images match the account (and you don't have an adult masquerading as a child, for example), and control whether microphones and cameras are turned on.
- Are users aware of the rules, and how to access safeguarding support? We'd normally deliver face-to-face sessions in centres covered in posters about what we allow and what we don't. We can replicate this at the beginning of the session with a holding screen - such as a screen-shared Powerpoint slide - while we're waiting for people to join. It can lay out our expectations - should microphones and cameras be on, should people be feeding back in the comments section, should participants be interacting with each other or with us? We can also give our tips for carers, which we'll talk about below. It should also have contact details for your safeguarding lead so people know who to contact if they have concerns regarding anything which happens during the session.
- Is your safeguarding lead available? If not, you should postpone your session until they are - safeguarding needs to stay at the heart of everything we do, and that means that support has to be available.
We should also make clear our expectations for carers of children and vulnerable adults. The bottom line here is that online sessions should be treated in the same way as face-to-face sessions. If a child or vulnerable adult would normally be supervised or accompanied to a session offline, they should be supervised or accompanied online:
- This includes talking to the child or vulnerable adult about the session. Were they shown something they didn't understand or didn't like? Did they meet anyone, or make a new friend? Are they planning on talking to someone again outside of the session, or meeting them on another platform (including computer games)? Were they offered or promised anything? In themselves, these are not necessarily reasons for concern but are reasons to follow-up and be attentive to.
- Think about how much information is available about the child or vulnerable adult. If they have a public profile, such as a Facebook profile, how much is visible? You should try to reduce the chances of the child or vulnerable adult being recognisable offline - so things like addresses, school photos, images of public group activities such as Scouting or church outings, should be kept private. For platforms like Zoom, remove the surname from the username to make people harder to identify.
- Once you've logged in and been approved by the administrator, think about turning your camera and microphone off. If this is not a session requiring interaction, no one needs to see or hear you, so there's no need to advertise yourself.
Remember that everything we do, we should do safely and so we should be incorporating safety into our planning.
If you have any thoughts or best practice from your own work, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. And don't forget, we have a set of free training materials for volunteer groups on our 'Resources' page