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7 questions to ask when using digital technology to help maintain family contact

Social distancing throws up obvious challenges in ensuring ongoing face-to-face contact between children and their extended families.

Digital technology can play a role in maintaining vital relationships— but before employing a new platform, practitioners should ask themselves some key questions to ensure the experience is safe, accessible and appropriate, and that it offers the best experience for each family.

What is the simplest way?

It may not provide the same richness as face-to-face or live video chat but conference calling by phone offers a relatively quick, simple and inclusive way of maintaining family contact.

Various conference calling services are available. Calls to some, such as WHYPAY?, are included in bundled minutes deals from landlines and mobile phones (though each party would need to check this with their provider). WHYPAY? is currently also offering free moderation features and call recording for three months.

Using a conference calling system means that other participants don’t need to know each other’s numbers.

Is it age-appropriate?

In the UK, only children aged 13 or over are able to give their own consent to the online processing of their data. This means that most social media platforms—Facebook, Skype, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram— have a minimum age requirement of 13. In the UK, WhatsApp users have to be 16 or over to use the service.

Who can contact who?

In WhatsApp chats, participants’ phone numbers are shared. On other platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, you have to register, and your username/profile is shared. Anyone with these IDs is able to make contact at any time, or share those details with others.

Many video services, for example Zoom and Whereby, now allow participants to join via a link without registering. This means that participants do not automatically share any contact details. However, it may be possible for those who have the link to share it and invite others into the same call.

What additional features are there?

Many platforms include additional features alongside video calls such as chat, live subtitles, screen sharing and recording. While these can be useful, sometimes they can prove difficult to moderate and manage safely. For example, in WhatsApp, users can share real-time location information.

Is the free version suitable?

Free-to-use services are likely to be paid for by advertising, or the sharing of customer data

 Paid-for services do not usually include advertising, and may allow better management of users and features that could help make contact safer. For example, Zoom Pro allows you to switch features on and off, and you can track what meetings are taking place across a whole organisation.

What’s in the background?

As call participants are likely to be in their own homes, it is important to set some basic ground rules in order to manage background noise and views. Digital tools may also help. For example, Skype lets you blur the background and Zoom allows you to change it completely.

What behaviours are you introducing?

Using digital to support contact has lots of advantages. However, it may be that you are introducing a new tool or encouraging behaviour that may have a risk in a different context. Live video chat may be safely managed during organised contact for example—but it is helpful to remind children that is not the same for all video chats, and that these tools can be used for less good reasons, including exploitation.

It is also worth considering how digital contact will be sustained and integrated into wider organisational management systems and processes.

Parent Zone provides free resources, guides and ideas for professionals on supporting young people and all kinds of families in a connected world.

Other links

Digital Candle – One free hour of expert digital advice for charities

Internet Matters – What age can my child start social networking?

Learn My Way – A simple guide to using video calling

London CLCRemote learning

NSPCC – Guide to social networks, apps and games

Parent Info – Help and advice for families in a digital world

Safer Internet Centre – Age restrictions on social media services

SWGfL – Safe remote learning for schools

Tes – Simplified terms and conditions for social media platforms

Author: Cliff Manning set up the digital youth participation network More Than Robots.