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Risk assessing online platforms

Topics: Blog
Woman and children sit outside looking at activity sheets and tablet

By Maisy Watkins, Child Safety Online Project Officer

The use of online platforms has grown significantly in recent years1. They have allowed us to carry on with our day-to-day tasks and see our families and friends, without having to leave our homes. They've also changed the way we work.

Using online platforms within your organisation can have lots of benefits. You may use video conferencing apps to run virtual activities, host events and share news with parents and young people. But there are also risks involved in using them.

It's important that you carry out a full risk assessment of any new platform before you start using it with young people. And if you’re thinking of changing the way you use a platform you should think about any additional risks this might present.

Read on for the main things you should consider when deciding whether to use an online platform.

Be clear about its purpose

You should be clear about why you are using the platform. For example, you might want to use it to deliver lessons remotely or communicate with parents, carers or young people. You should think about what other options are available to you, and whether an online platform is the best choice.

Make sure it's age appropriate 

Always make sure the platform you are using is suitable for the age, stage of development and ability of the young people you work with. Most social media sites have age-ratings of 13+ but some video conferencing apps are designed for people aged 18 or over.

Consider using a site which has been specifically designed for use with children, such as an educational platform. These tend to have more safety tools in place, although they still require a risk assessment.

Identify potential risks

When carrying out a risk assessment of a platform, you should frame it around three risks: content, conduct and contact.

Content

Consider the potential risk of a child coming across inappropriate content:

  • are there adverts on the platform?
  • are there sharing tools available and who has access to them?

Conduct

Think about how you want staff, volunteers, children and young people to conduct themselves on the platform. Ask yourself:

  • do you have codes of conduct?
  • are all staff clear on procedures for dealing with incidents of online bullying?
  • do you have guidance on how young people should behave on the platform?

Contact

Assess risks around contact on the platform. Establish:

  • who will have access to the platform and how?
  • what communication features are available?
  • does the platform allow young people to contact each other or staff in a group or one-to-one basis?
  • will the platform be available outside of working hours?

Explore the different safety and privacy settings available

Only use a platform that has clear guidance and advice about how you can keep the platform safe for young people and staff. Research some of the different settings that are available and make a list of the ones you want to apply. Some might be set up by default, but others you will need to enable. For example, the default setting on Zoom is that only hosts can report abusive or upsetting comments. But on verified educational accounts there are settings you can enable that allow everyone to make reports.

Settings are often changed and improved so make sure to check on the platform itself for the current settings.

Consider staff roles and responsibilities

A member of staff should be responsible for moderating the platform when it is being used by young people. This is to prevent inappropriate content from being shared on the platform and help keep everyone safe.

Make sure there is a clear route for escalation of concerns outlined in roles and responsibilities. Consider whether the chat will be monitored out-of-hours and how this will be managed.

You should provide technical and procedural training to staff, and technical and online safety training to all users. You might want to explore some of the courses available on NSPCC Learning, such as Keeping children safe online.

Review existing policies and procedures

Ensure that procedures and policies are updated to reflect any additional risks highlighted in the assessment. Make sure to update staff, parents, and young people on any changes.

Revisit the risk assessment

Build in a regular review of the risk assessment into your internal process to evaluate new areas of risk and whether existing mitigations are working.

Key points to take away

Before using an online platform, take time to think:

  • if you really need to use an online platform for the activity
  • if the platform is appropriate for use with children
  • what steps you need to put in place to help mitigate any risk
  • how to respond to incidents if they occur.

About the author

Maisy Watkins is a Project Officer in the NSPCC's Child Safety Online Solutions Lab, helping adults understand the risks children may encounter when using the internet and how to safeguard them effectively. Previously, Maisy worked with children and young people who experienced or were at risk of sexual exploitation.