Since lockdown there has been a plethora of contemporaneous accounts of how practitioners have adapted to the challenges of physically distanced social work. A reoccurring theme to many reflective accounts centres on how the global digital shift, for which social work has long been playing catch up (Taylor, 2017), has ruptured into something akin to a digital shock.
Within the space of days and weeks, a new lexicon of practice language has been deployed to describe a range of virtual practices to enable us to continue ‘doing’ social work and to engage with children and young people. As we can probably all testify, the reliance on digital solutions, including for the purposes of welfare, public health and social support, has been the backdrop to much of the Covid crisis. Mirroring my own PhD study, I am left wondering what this all means for the rights of children and young people who are caught in social work systems.
The Child Rights International Network summarise how a rights perspective can support our understanding of children’s digital experiences, identifying principles of the right to access of information; the right to be safeguarded from abuse; the right to privacy and to be forgotten; and the right to freedom of expression and be heard. In contrast, Quennerstedt (2010) questions a framing of children’s rights purely based on the 3P’s, of provision, protection and participation, instead calling for a closer connection to the wider agenda of Human Rights of ‘civil, political and social rights’.
Lundy (2019) reminds us that concern with children’s rights should not be powered by pity or concern for wellbeing, instead she identifies a ‘right’ as something ‘demanded or insisted upon without embarrassment or shame’. Connecting universal rights to digital rights has perhaps challenged this ‘test’, as notions of digital participation and access have often been connected to concepts of luxury. In this sense, the notion of children’s digital rights is a relatively new concept, developed from research into children’s global experiences of digital technology and a growing recognition that children rights has a relationship to wider rights in relation to use of personal data, privacy and safety (Livingstone & Third, 2017). So how do we understand these tensions in relation to the digital rights for children and young people who have social work involvement in their lives?
With the arrival of lockdown, the most urgent dilemma facing social workers and allied professionals was ensuring (a right to) digital access for children and families. In this magazine, Autumn Roesch Marsh wrote a compelling call to arms for social workers to address the issue of digital poverty for children in care and care leavers describing efforts to scramble access to pre-used tech for isolated young people. Yet at an operational and policy level, the attention to digital exclusion, appears to have been predominantly driven by two distinct reasons. Primarily, how do social workers retain ‘their’ access ‘to’ children in the absence of physical contact; and secondly, how can we ensure ‘vulnerable’ children and young people continue their schooling, and proximity to teachers. Gavin Williamson’s announcement of support to provide laptops and 4G routers for children with social workers and care leavers was prioritised for those needing to access technology for the purposes of education. As such, the framing of what is regarded as a legitimate need for technology has been heavily connected to the ongoing fulfilment legal obligations of the state and access to education and welfare. Meanwhile, this scheme has been slow to respond, meaning many young people have experienced lockdown in an ongoing state of ‘digital’ isolation.
The isolating implications of pandemic has meant the availability of digital technology has been elevated and legitimised in the minds of social workers from a desirable ‘want’ to a clear ‘need’, especially as the mobile phone or laptop became the only portal through which professionals could safely see and engage with children. This reminds me of the popular ‘Meme’ that places Wifi as the foundation stone of Maslow’s hierarchy. And yet, the use of digital technology in children and young people’s lives is about so much more than interaction with professionals to ensure physiological or safety needs, be this during a pandemic or not. Children’s access to technology is intimately connected to belonging, friendships, family life, leisure, hobbies and learning about a world outside of school. It is a means to develop a rounded identity, to build social and cultural capital, and to explore digital citizenship, especially crucial for children who are living away from their birth families (Hammond, 2018). Indeed a ‘right to digital access’ moves beyond arguments for the fulfilment of needs or wellbeing, towards the interconnected right to civil and political participation in society.
However, children and young people’s social and participatory engagement with technology, typically mediated through social media apps or online gaming is still predominantly viewed as a risk to be managed. As such the right to be protected and safeguarded from abuse is arguably the most unequivocally accepted digital right within social work. Misgivings about social media use amongst children with social work involvement tend to focus on the impact on safety and wellbeing, and incorporates a spectrum of concerns ranging from the preoccupation with usage and screen time, to significant risks such as access to harmful content, bullying, and sexual and criminal exploitation and abuse (May-Chahal, 2014). These concerns have tended to invoke punitive responses that seek to limit or control online participation (Sen 2016; Simpson, 2019). More recently, research informed approaches to children and young people’s mediated participation from safeguarding organisations have adopted a measured approach to online activity, including online activity of looked after children and children requiring protection (see here the guidance to foster carers from CEOP and the PCFSW guidance on assessing online risks). As lockdown continues into its fourth month, a parallel pandemic of online child sexual abuse from predators has been reported along with concerns from the NSPCC that online child grooming may increase due to coronavirus. So, while online risks are an understandable focus for social workers concerned with the protection of children, this preoccupation with risks from peers and predators, ‘the other’, can obscure risks from ever expanding, legitimised digital networks, including those used by social welfare and statutory organisations, such as ‘us’ social workers.
The implications of professional digitised data are likely to impact some children more than others, especially those children who are more likely to be present in welfare systems, connected to class, race and economic inequality. This includes the enduring presence of over represented children’s personal data ‘baked into’ databases (Keddell, 2019), which is then analysed by both human and Artificial intelligence. It includes facial recognition and biometric surveillance technologies used for purposes of identity, security and policing in community and education settings (Wroe and Lloyd, 2020). And it also includes the presence of children’s intimate personal details and life experiences, often captured in minute detail, within social work ICT systems children’s, and which are often incomplete (Hoyle et al, 2018), biased or inaccurate as highlighted by Kay Everard in the 4th edition of this magazine. In this sense, I would argue being the focus of the professional gaze, no matter how well intentioned, constitutes a threat to children’s digital right to ‘privacy and to being forgotten’.
As we acclimatise to living ‘with’ coronavirus, child welfare and social work organisations will be urgently looking to new digital solutions to manage all the uncertainties the pandemic brings, providing the perfect climate for Big Tech corporations to colonise health, social care and welfare ‘markets’ (Magalahes and Couldry, 2020). The cash strapped public sector will find quick fix solutions hard to resist, however, these technical solutions are likely to involve heavily marketised and datafied welfare systems, powered by infinite layers of digitised information and with a heavy reliance on surveillance technologies (Eubanks, 2017).
Andy Stirling (2020) argues, this renewed faith in systems of technology and the scrambling of strategies to manage the pandemic is a product of the ‘globalising imaginations of modernity’ and the relentless need to control. Indeed, I would suggest social work’s predominant relationship with the digital, be that children’s mediated participation or as a vehicle to manage the absence of physical proximity, is characterised by a desire for adults to retain control and manage uncertainty. Yet, with control comes limitation and notions about acceptable forms of digital practices, which may have unforeseen implications for the social and civil rights of children. As such, the need to pause and consider ethics and rights in a climate of digital expansion is pressing (Goldkind et al, 2020).
Finally, the absence of children and young people’s voices and contemporaneous knowledge about their digital experiences under lockdown is notably absent. While researchers will no doubt focus on the retrospective accounts of children, it is crucial we listen to what children tell us now about how they experience technology and what is helpful to them in living a good digital life. And in developing any digital solutions to help adults manage their professional roles in a Post-Covid age, technological solutions must be built from a position of upholding the right to be heard, and a commitment to amplify the voices of all children and young people.
Goldkind, L., LaMendola, W., & Taylor-Beswick, A. (2020) ‘Tackling COVID-19 is a crucible for privacy’, Journal of Technology in Human Services, [Online] ‘First online’ published 02nd May 2020. 38:2, 89-90, DOI:10.1080/15228835.2020.1757559
Hammond, S.P., Cooper, N. & Jordan, P. (2018), ‘Social Media, Social Capital and Adolescents Living in State Care: A Multi-Perspective and Multi-Method Qualitative Study’, The British Journal of Social Work, vol. 48, no. 7, pp. 2058-2076.
Hoyle, V., Shepherd, E., Flinn, A. & Lomas, E. (2018), ‘Child Social-Care Recording and the Information Rights of Care-Experienced People: A Recordkeeping Perspective’, The British Journal of Social Work, [Online] ‘first online published 15.12.18, DOI: 10.1093/social/bcy115
Livingstone, S. & Third, A. (2017) ‘Children and young people’s rights in the digital age: An emerging agenda’, New Media & Society 2017, Vol. 19(5) 657–670
Keddell, E. (2019), ‘Algorithmic Justice in Child Protection: Statistical Fairness, Social Justice and the Implications for Practice’, Social Sciences, vol. 8, no. 10, pp. 281.
Lundy, L. (2019), ‘A Lexicon for Research on International Children’s Rights in Troubled Times’, The International Journal of Children’s Rights, vol. 2019;27;, no. 4, pp. 595-601.
May-Chahal, C., Mason, C., Rashid, A., Walkerdine, J., Rayson, P. & Greenwood, P. (2014), ‘Safeguarding Cyborg Childhoods: Incorporating the On/Offline Behaviour of Children into Everyday Social Work Practices’, The British Journal of Social Work, vol. 44, no. 3, pp. 596-614.
Quennerstedt, A. (2010), ‘Children, But Not Really Humans? Critical Reflections on the Hampering Effect of the “3 p’s’, The International Journal of Children’s Rights, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 619-635.
Sen, R. 2016, ‘Not All that Is Solid Melts into Air? Care-Experienced Young People, Friendship and Relationships in the ‘Digital Age’’, The British Journal of Social Work, vol. 46, no. 4, pp. 1059-1075.
Simpson, J.E. (2019) ‘Twenty First Century Contact: Children in Care and their use of mobile communication devices for contact and the Internet’. PhD. University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh.
Taylor, A (2017) ‘Social work and digitalisation: bridging the knowledge gaps’, Social Work Education, vol. 36, no. 8, pp. 869-879.
Wroe, L.E. & Lloyd, J. (2020), ‘Watching over or Working with? Understanding Social Work Innovation in Response to Extra-Familial Harm’, Social Sciences, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 37.