Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to inform, create debate, and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child's voice, and how what they tell us, informs the work we do.
Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. This week’s episode focuses on our InCtrl service which is designed to prevent technology-assisted child sexual abuse (TA-CSA). Children and young people who take part in the sessions work to build digital resilience by recognising the risks they encounter online, promoting their emotional wellbeing and strengthening the supports around them.
Nicola McConnell, one of our senior research and evaluation officers – and who evaluated the service – had a chat with Gurpreet Dosanjh, a team manager at our Coventry service centre; Lucy O’Callaghan, a practitioner at our Cardiff service centre – Gurpreet and Lucy ran the InCtrl service – and also Theresa Park, Development and Impact Manager for InCtrl.
And a link to the implementation evaluation of InCtrl can be found on this podcast’s webpage.
So can we start by describing the InCtrl service and why it's needed? Theresa…
InCtrl is a group-work service. It's delivered to children between the ages of nine to 13. The whole aim of the service is to prevent tech-assisted child sexual abuse. We were conscious within NSPCC that children are growing up within a digital age and obviously that brings huge benefits, in terms of the information age and children having much more access to information and technology. But we were also very conscious about how that imposed increased risk to children within that context.
Essentially our initial thinking about this service was about helping to build children's digital resilience. And there was a lot of thinking about how we may best approach that and which children would be most in need of that. There's a recognition for us that all children are vulnerable by way of being children certainly and we didn't want to be highlighting vulnerabilities of children in a way that then perhaps served to place responsibility on those circumstances. But certainly we wanted to be very aware of how adversity impacts on children and can increase children's vulnerability both offline and online.
So there's a lot of thinking about how we would develop the service and what that would look like. Whether that would be a resource of a toolkit or a set of materials that would go to children directly or professionals and parents around them. And settled upon collaboration with the teams who are on the ground and working in practice and can bring all of that practice wisdom back to us, and settled upon having a group-work service for children. A recognition that we needed to have something that was fairly intensive, but also set out to be preventative so that we could be working with children at the earliest point possible, to help them make sense of some of the key things that we know would help reduce those vulnerabilities. It's mainly delivered in schools and parts of that work includes work with parents and professionals.
Great, thanks Theresa. Lucy and Gurpreet, you both work in our service centres. What sort of things were you seeing on the ground before InCtrl was up and running?
I think we were seeing that children were getting their first mobile phone at a younger and younger age really and that there was limited service and limited resources to prepare them for that.
Is that similar for you Gurpreet?
Yeah, I definitely echo what Lucy's seen in Wales. In terms of need, a lot of the resources that are out there, are fairly surface level. Very helpful in and of themselves, but certainly we could see in Coventry a need for children to engage more meaningfully with resources and content.
Can you tell me more about the typical risks and concerns that led to children being referred to InCtrl?
At Coventry we saw inappropriate behaviour online. Some of that was image sharing that was inappropriate for their age or development. A lot of the children struggling socially, so a lot of difficulties with friendships. Very much on us on a spectrum certainly, so ranging from potentially engaging in some form of unkind behaviour or what we could call cyber bullying, all the way down to difficulties in WhatsApp groups and friendship fallouts, etcetera, as well as underlying vulnerabilities generally.
In South Wales, we were seeing quite a lot of online bullying so that was a concern. And we've also had quite a few looked after children being referred for the service. We actually did a looked after child group during the summer holidays. Lots of the concerns for those children were about oversharing online and then the fact that that could make them quite vulnerable to somebody who might groom them. So those are the sorts of concerns that we were seeing.
Really the focus of the programme is about using the Internet in a positive way rather than making them feel that they've done anything wrong and that's the reason that they've come on to the group. And I think that's one of the ways that we've been able to help the children and young people, to help them reflect on their online use and behaviour.
And I think the power of a group, you can't really underestimate that. The group work environment can be really, really powerful and that it kind of develops naturally in the group. You put an idea out there and then the children will relate to their own experience and say, “oh this happened to me”. And I think they're more likely in a way to listen to each other rather than another adult telling them what to do on use and behaviour.
So our survey data, completed by practitioners, indicated that quite a large proportion of the young people referred, didn't feel there were any problems with their online behaviour, even though clearly the adults in their life did. So how do you work with that type of scenario?
Just going on from what Lucy said, it's about encouraging that safe space for them to reflect and share their experiences. We had to be really mindful about the use of language so it reflects more of an awareness raising tone. And it was a tricky balance sometimes at the beginning of the groups. When we first started out, we were in a school setting so we were really mindful that it did not feel like a lesson for young people which was difficult. But we soon found our feet. And we know from research and various articles that scaring children about risks online isn't very effective, certainly not in the long term. It doesn't change behaviour. And really InCtrl is about encouraging positive behaviour online and encouraging resilience and wellbeing online. So I think ultimately the approach was always, we're trying to create a safe space where you're there to listen and understand a child's story and not just focus on the risk element.
And sometimes we'd have really successful sessions where the risk element was certainly part of the session plan, but it became a much bigger conversation rather than just focusing on the problem or the issue or the concern, which tends to be much more adult thinking about something. Whereas when we opened it up to the young people and the group. That you really can share what you want in this group. You have that freedom. It kind of gave them the permission to do so.
Often in many scenarios, it was almost like being a reflective mirror for them. They might come up with scenarios of something that we discussed and it was about asking children, “well have you thought about this? What if X, Y or Z happened instead? What options do you have in that situation?”. So you are opening them up to different perspectives and ideas.
And I think you quickly realise that the online world does not allow for time for reflection for young people. Because we think about the absolute nature of social media – it is fast, it's quick, it's media, it's urgent. And every interaction, every swipe that they're doing, it's often done without not that much thought.
We encourage a lot of stopping, thinking and that you have choices and options. So it all led to this general feeling in the room that we're encouraging agency and choice. And certainly, we didn't really want to focus on something that was right or wrong, good or bad, because I think when you work with that binary option, it doesn't open up a child's mind to other things.
And what we fast found out that the online world is anything but just black and white. It's very complex. The social interactions are very complicated and nuanced. And we had to meet that need that we saw in the room. So we definitely had to have that balance about getting them to slow down whilst they were with us and really the aim is to help them to feel confident in making decisions generally. And sometimes these young people had not even sat and thought about that and certainly not with their peers, even though they were all involved in the same behaviour. It was really interesting to see that unfold within the sessions.
I think that's advice that many of us could take really. Lucy, is there anything you want to add to that?
Similar to what Gurpreet was saying, it’s about encouraging the children to slow down and think and encouraging the positives of the offline world as well and thinking about how you need to look after yourself, in terms of switching your phone off and having time away from it. And I know that's easier said than done and as adults we spend a lot of time on our phones and online as well. I think it's about rather than saying that any behaviour is right or wrong. it’s just thinking about the knock-on effects.
So there's one activity that works really well in InCtrl’s manual where you give examples of a teenage boy and what he should post and what he shouldn't post. And there's one quite innocent example in there of him posting a funny video of his brother dancing. And lots of children will immediately say that's fine. But on lots of occasions in groups, somebody in the group has said, “oh actually, how does the younger brother feel about that? That could be embarrassing. Has he given consent for that video to be posted?”. So it's just thinking about the other people involved in what you post online.
Sometimes with the group, there can be unintended consequences of the group. And one group that we facilitated in a school, some of the feedback from the school afterwards was that the boys involved were a lot more considerate towards each other and they were making less fun of each other and just a lot more warm and empathic towards each other. Whereas prior, I think it was what would be called banter, but sometimes it would go a little bit too far. So sometimes the group can have consequences and really positive outcomes that might not just be online.
And I guess one of the things that was coming up lot for practitioners when we were embarking on developing this service and launching this service was a question about well how much do we know about online. And quite often we know that children actually are ten steps ahead in terms of what they know about the online world. But actually, I think a lot of anxiety, possibly reduced. Workers were finding that they were learning from children.
But the whole thing about children's wellbeing, making those connections with children, making those relationships with children and promoting those relationships with each other, are fundamental to keeping children safe online and will indeed translate and transfer into their offline world and improve children's wellbeing. So one of the key learning points from this group is that it's actually the whole child that has made some masses of difference in terms of helping to keep children safe online.
A nice story I heard recently was about how young people sometimes help their parents change their behaviour, for example, the settings they use or what they share on Facebook. And that's based on what the young people learnt when they attended the InCtrl service. Can you tell me more about the importance of involving parents and carers within the service and how you went about it?
I think some of the key learning for us is, we know certainly within NSPCC, much wider across all of our services, is that parents and caregivers are fundamental to keeping children safe. And all of our work is thinking about that and working with parents in order to support them and keep them on board in terms of any of the direct work that we're doing and to strengthen those supports around children. And that was part of the work that we were doing within InCtrl also.
There certainly were some challenges to that in terms of children we were working directly with in schools and some of the messages. And how that may well have landed on parents, in terms of what their role was as part of that support offer, perhaps had different messages within different areas and service centres. But certainly, we’re very conscious that we weren't as successful as we'd like to be in terms of involving parents and that's something we'd like to continue to build on as we go forward.
And since we've been working virtually with children, working in their own homes, we've had much more opportunity to involve parents and have them as part of those sessions. I guess we're going to talk about that in a bit more detail. But yes, we have always had a lens on the supports around children, including the parents. They are pivotal to supporting children and protecting children. And we need to continue to build on that momentum.
And Gurpreet, can you tell us a bit more about how you went about engaging parents and carers?
Yes. With InCtrl, the involvement of parents and carers - as Theresa's mentioned - is pretty much from the entire lifespan of the programme really and the service. So it starts with ideally you're doing a brief assessment with the parent and the young person before they access the group or the programme itself.
Within the actual programme, we tried to keep contact with parents throughout the group, give them updates about how the child was doing in the group. Sometimes that was really effective and successful and sometimes not as much as some parents obviously saw this is very much a preventative service. So we're less engaged which I think you will find in any service really. So that was a bit trickier. That was more of a challenge to draw them in. But part of the programme, which is great, is that we have a safety planning session within the programme. And I think that gives a really clear message that we want to work in partnership with the parent from the beginning and provide that support.
We interviewed several groups of children and individual children to evaluate InCtrl. How else have children's views been incorporated into the development and implementation of the service? I know Lucy and Gurpreet, you were there at the beginning, so perhaps you could tell us a bit more about that?
In South Wales, we've got a participation group and they were involved in the development of the service. They voted on the name for the service. And they also voted on the content for the sessions as well. And we asked their opinion on what they thought would work, how they thought sessions should be delivered, the length of the sessions, and how we could accommodate if children and young people were a bit anxious about the group beforehand.
I remember that conversation being quite powerful. They mentioned keeping them informed. Sessions being on the same day at the same time so they knew when they were going to be. And then we also include the children and young people in the development of the actual group as it's going on. So if they feed back that a particular activity worked well or they like watching video clips and then also keen on the writing aspect of the group, we'll incorporate their views into how individual groups are run as well.
I mean our group couldn't get enough of icebreaker activities because they were just fun and they just wanted to have some fun. It was really good because it was a really no pressure, sort of non-confrontational way for them to carry on getting to know each other. So we needed to do that for a bit longer with our group in Coventry. It was great for us to observe how they interact, how they engage with one another, how do they deal with choices or options. That was still even a great way to observe the young people and find out who they are really.
Can you tell me more about how you went about adapting InCtrl so it could be delivered online? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of virtual delivery?
So myself and a couple of other practitioners who had worked on InCtrl, we got together and we thought about which activities would work well online, which activities would translate to working one-to-one rather than in a group. And we worked with Theresa as well to come up with some new guidance for the programme. Some activities that we do on the group, they only work well with a few different people. Some of them we were able to adapt some. Some activities were easier than others to think about, what would work virtually, and what would work on a one-to-one basis. It was great that we were able to adapt the manual and have an option to continue delivery. And there have been lots of advantages to that, certainly with engaging parents and the fact that we were able to keep in touch with young people that were open to us and continue offering them a service.
I think one of the disadvantages of virtual delivery is that there's no replacement for being in a room with a young person. I think that being able to deliver virtually is great. But being in that room, I think you just get so much more from the body language, how the young person presents. When we were creating the manual, we really thought about things like how we could try and make it as similar in a way to as it would be in real life, in terms of having that conversation with the parent/carer at the beginning, having a check-in, having some icebreakers, ensuring that the young person is okay to go ahead with that session on that day, really modelling consent in that way.
One of the advantages we found that the one-to one does often allow a bit of a deeper dive into what issues might be affecting that specific child. And then you also have, because you're doing it one-to-one, you have the freedom to go there and explore that. It's obviously more challenging within a group setting. The involvement of parents I think has increased so that's really, really positive.
It is a tricky balance between making sure that children are appropriately supported for sessions and scaffolded around sessions as Lucy's described, and thinking about how we can engage them meaningfully essentially, not just turning into some sort of virtual training session. So there's been a lot of thinking. I think it will continue to evolve as we go forward, but it's been a positive step and I'm sure quite daunting at times for practitioners because it's been quite a different way of working, from working in a room.
So Theresa lastly, what's currently happening with InCtrl and what will be your next steps?
Our thinking from now is to draw in all of this, to draw on the findings of the feasibility. There's some really helpful learning in there about working with parents, the children, the target children that we worked with, how we reach children much more meaningfully - draw on that learning. Think about what the literature is telling us about preventing tech-assisted child sexual abuse. And also what's happening now in terms of current delivery. How our world is changing around us and how we need to continue to respond to the need of protecting children online.
Our aim has always been to work in a way that's much more systemic and builds on what we've got in terms of working directly with children, but ensuring we work in a way that we are strengthening the structures around children. So as I've talked about strengthening that offer and ensuring we can build on what we know about working with parents and helping them support their children and talk to the children. And also support the professionals around children, so that they feel confident to have those conversations, to recognise those risks, to respond to the concerns that they may well be having about children and supporting that work around children in order that we can help protect them. But also, fundamentally working with children and the system around them at the earliest point in order that we can work preventively.
Theresa just talking about that triggered a few thoughts about the impact of the pandemic for young people. We are likely to see an increase in online use, an increase in social isolation. Much more of a dependency on phones and devices as children are staying at home.
And it triggered another thought that influence from good, positive role models such as teachers, youth workers, family members, you realise that's not going to be happening in the same way. In InCtrl, we do talk about support networks and who can you go to. And I suppose more than ever, our resources within the NSPCC will be really important. But it then reminds me or speaks to the fact that InCtrl does take a whole child approach and that emphasis on wellbeing and resilience is actually even more and more important.
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