Keeping Children Safe in a Virtual World

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This post was written by Guy Russ, assistant vice president Risk Control, Church Mutual Insurance Company, S.I.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, churches and schools across the country closed their buildings this spring and pivoted to an environment of virtual learning. Now, the social impacts of COVID-19 are likely to carry on through the summer.

That means summer kids’ programs may look different this year. Just as hands-on classroom instruction was replaced by digital learning tools during the school year, summer programs may need to adopt similar tactics.

While the threat of COVID-19 remains, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a Youth Programs and Camps Decision Tool to help organizations make the difficult decision whether to open for on-site programming this summer. Considerations include state and local orders, along with the ability to do health screenings and protect higher-risk participants from exposure.

Churches and schools that can’t meet all those guidelines, or aren’t yet comfortable inviting participants on-site, may look toward online options to continue serving children in a different way.

Church Mutual’s 2020 Camp Safety & Security Study found that 57% of parents fear their child might experience some form of abuse while at camp—either by counselors, other adults or even other campers. The survey was conducted before the emergence of COVID-19 in the U.S., but fears of sexual abuse and bullying still apply to virtual programs.

So, how do we keep children safe in this virtual landscape?

First, program facilitators should get to know the application they’ll be using. How will it work for the needs of the program? And, how can it be exploited by those with bad intentions? Also find out what information a platform collects from participants and what they do with that information. 

Cyberbullies

In a survey conducted over the past 11 years by Cyberbullying Research Center, about 28% of young people reported having been bullied online [Cyberbullying Research Center, 2019]. According to a resource provided by the CDC, reports of cyberbullying are highest among middle school students, followed by high school students, and then primary school students [CDC, 2019].

Any organization that considers virtual programming for children should learn how to recognize cyberbullying. Promoting a positive environment and communicating expectations to young participants will help empower youth to report any bullying behavior they encounter.

Facilitators and administrators need to address cyberbullying as part of a written code of online conduct that parents and participants are required to sign. Getting parents involved also can add another layer of supervision to the program and help with setting online boundaries for children.

If facilitators do become aware of cyberbullying, an organization should know how to properly respond. Cyberbullying Research Center provides a list of tips for how to respond. While intended for educators, many items on the list are also applicable to youth program facilitators and camp administrators. It is also helpful to know the laws on cyberbullying, which can vary by state.

Predators

Unfortunately, organizations also need to worry about those who look to prey on children online.

The first step is to have an effective staff screening process in place for those who will be interacting with children in the virtual program. Staff should only contact participants through the program’s official channel. Just like with in-person programming, an adult and child should never be left one-on-one, even online. According to MinistrySafe, avoid one-to-one communication (by telephone, Skype, Facetime, direct messaging); all communication should be public and transparent [MinistrySafe, 2020]. 

It’s also vital to protect the personal information of your participants. This goes back to knowing what information the chosen platform collects and how it is used. Information that could be useful to online predators should be closely guarded. Instructing children not to share their own personal or identifying information online will help keep them safe as well.

MinistrySafe recommends prohibiting the sending or requesting of photos, images or video of individuals; in the event a video-captured presentation is required to be submitted, the submission e-mail (or other form of electronic communication) should include a parent or at least two teaching staff members [MinistrySafe, 2020]. 

Let children know if they receive any online communication that feels inappropriate or threatening, they should report it immediately to a parent or program facilitator. Staff who are made aware of suspicious online messages should follow state reporting requirements.

Insurance professionals are here to help if organizations have questions about their coverages or liability exposures related to virtual programming. Many insurance carriers also offer extensive risk control resources and consulting. Helping youth stay safe remains a top priority for all of us, especially in these unprecedented times.

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