The pandemic and lockdown have together escalated the safeguarding risks that children face as they become isolated from social support and move towards online learning. We discuss measures to help curb the negative impact of these events.
It has been around 9 months since the first lockdown was announced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic across the world. It’s now widely known that the disruption to normalcy has impacted children in a number of ways – from detrimental impact on their academic performance and mental health to the endangerment of their safety. It is well known that infectious disease outbreaks can exacerbate vulnerabilities and generate new risks for children.
According to an INTERPOL assessment, such risks to children’s safety manifest in striking ways. Increased time spent in lockdown and confinement has increased the amount of time spent online by children for educational purposes as well as for entertainment and social interactions. According to the report, “During COVID-19 children seek alternative ways of socialising through games, chats, social media, etc. whilst not necessarily being aware of any associated risks.” It sheds light on other possible challenges, too. For example, instances where victims of exploitation or abuse may be in lockdown with the offender might not be surfacing enough due to underreporting or delayed reporting, lack of reasonable access to communication services, among others reasons.
Research has also shown us that boredom can lead to indiscreet risk-taking – which in the case of students can manifest as an increase in the taking and sharing of self-generated material – with further possible negative ramifications. Such safeguarding risks are present across the world. In fact, according to the INTERPOL study, some countries have even reported “concerns with regard to the impediments victims face in accessing safe accommodation, alternative care options and related health-services during COVID-19” and all of these challenges exacerbate when we factor in the possibility of children living in potentially abusive households.
Various stakeholders have been recognising these threats to safety of children and taking measures to combat these challenges. Before diving into the solutions, let’s explore the possible risks facing the children in a pandemic.
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What kinds of risks are there?
While all children face some form and level of psychological distress under the pandemic, some children are at a higher risk of abuse and neglect. Here are the broad risk factors identified in children:
Dr Lucy Russell, a clinical psychologist based in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire and founder of They Are The Future, a wellbeing support website for parents of school-aged children shares, “The main safeguarding issues I come across in my clinic are related to loneliness and isolation, and generally deteriorating mental health leading to self-harm and thoughts of suicide. These have increased since the pandemic.”
In America, CDC reports that one in 4 young adults have struggled with suicidal thoughts since the coronavirus hit. Children are also finding themselves in increasingly uncertain routines — they’re trying to understand why we’re going in and out of lockdowns. At the same time, their social interactions are now limited, monitored, and extremely measured. Children — especially the younger ones — need an open environment & routines to thrive with a sense of security and to help develop self-discipline. In fact, when the schools in the UK briefly opened for hybrid classes, UK-based mental health charity YoungMinds found out in their autumn survey that the respondents highlighted seeing friends, seeing teachers and returning to a routine as being positive for their mental health.
There have been exceptions to this, as Dr Sarah Mundy, Consultant Clinical Psychologist who specialises in working with children and families & Author of Parenting Through Stories explains, “for some of the children I work with — I specialise in adoption — they thrived during the first lockdown, particularly the younger children. I think this related to having a "nesting" period with their adoptive parents, which they may not have had when they first arrived, as well as school often being a stressful experience for this client group.”
But for the most part, she agrees, that “the pandemic has been a negative experience for most children and families and, for some, devastating.”
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When children are confined to their homes, the amount of time they spend online for educational, entertainment, and social purposes has shot up exponentially. This increased exposure to the online world has created an inadvertent risk of online abuse, exploitation by predators, and other concerns. Zoom-bombing, the term coined to describe incidents where trolls with unwarranted access to the meeting hop on to the video calls, has been reported in isolated incidents across the world, from Germany to US, from India to the UK.
Children have been interacting with the outside world through a screen, whether plonked in front of the screen for their online classes or for fun activities or even a family meet-up. When children are online for longer, they’re also at an increased risk for interacting with strangers. Gaming rooms have also become a breeding ground for such risks as cyberbullying, online harassment, . Even the act of putting out more content online puts them at a higher risk of online abuse as the viral circulation of content can lead to continuous re-victimisation.
The pandemic hasn’t been kind to adults, either. Many people are undergoing economic hardship, some professionals have been furloughed, yet others might have experienced a personal loss due to the pandemic. There’s a widespread concern that when parents resort to maladaptive coping mechanisms, like substance abuse, to cope with the increased pressures, it can create a plethora of issues for children. It starts with reduced supervision & neglect of children and can aggravate into physical abuse. Some caretakers/parents believe in corporal punishment and might take out their frustration on children. Therefore, children who weren’t vulnerable in the pre-pandemic phase might now be falling in the “at-risk” category.
The impact can get particularly amplified for families who moved right before the pandemic, and are strangers in the new house, are operating with low social capital and support, or possibly even facing language barriers. Children in such households are situationally predisposed to neglect and/or violence at home.
The fact of the matter is that children who come from vulnerable contexts often look at schools as their safe space, where the school’s security and protection makes them comfortable enough to learn in peace. So school closures, or lack of access to public transportation due to social distancing protocols, etc can hit them hard as they are forced to stay at home.
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Among the vulnerable children and adolescents are those with disabilities, those living in institutional facilities, refugees in camps, those in densely populated areas, those on the move, or children who are internally displaced.
Particularly for children with disabilities, even the shift to virtual learning is riddled with challenges. Issues like bad sound quality or lack of accurate captioning can impede their progress in school, especially in subjects that require jargon-heavy texts or contextual group discussions. On top of it, the usual impediments — limited internet access, lack of interpersonal communication, etc — can be harder for those with special needs. Often, children on the spectrum are more sensitive to changes in routine, and teachers may be too burdened to support them independently. The bottomline? None of this is easy for them.
Having enumerated the possible risks confronting children, we now explore the measures that can help us mitigate or alleviate the damage from these risks.
As screen time goes through the roof and hybrid/online learning gets more commonplace, it becomes important to engage the caretakers in the action plan. Imparting lessons around digital citizenship, talking to them about using privacy and security settings when online, blocking suspicious people or accounts, is the first step. Children should adobe able to tell a trusted adult if something uncomfortable happens in their online world.
At the same time, Russell suggests it’s equally important for parents to be emotionally healthy during this time, “Adults must do their best to prioritise their own self-care and emotional stability, so they are in the best position to be emotionally available for their children, or those in their care (eg teachers). We need to contain children and young people’s emotional distress, helping them to feel safe and less out of control.”
It has also been suggested that Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is easy to overlook, but important to prioritise in a pandemic situation. SEL is defined as “how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
It is critical to apprise children on topics like positive discipline, healthy relationships, and bystander skills, in order to help reduce vulnerability to abuse. They should be taught about their rights, body autonomy, consent, etc without attaching negative connotations with these themes so not to scare them more. To this effect, it’s equally important to have robust communication with children to facilitate reporting of any issues. This can be done through multiple reporting pathways including options for anonymous reporting like monitored email, an app, or a digital form.
Russell also suggests that schools and extra-curricular activities must remain open. She explains, ”These provide essential social contact, a sense of safety and structure, and are an opportunity for vulnerable children who do not feel safe at home to connect with safe adults.”
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It’s also important to incorporate child protection measures in the school’s recruitment and hiring protocols. Conducting a background check on all employees should include confirming identities of the employees, social media searches with modifiers to corroborate the character checks, and to expand the scope of staff training to cover school policies and procedures regarding reporting and first responder to disclosure; signs and indicators of abuse; and risk assessment. As Mundy recommends, “It may be helpful for schools to be provided with advice from psychological practitioners on the best way to support their student's mental health, as well as how they support their own staff to manage these difficult times.”
Each school should have a Code of Conduct under their Child Protection Policy where child protection is made a community focus and various stakeholders are involved. A teacher or school counsellors should do regular check-ins with children to find out what’s going on with them in their lives, apart from their classes. Teachers are far more likely to receive first disclosure of abuse than any other profession. The disclosures usually happen over informal chats, so it’s important to create that space intentionally.
In certain cases — for example, when the parent is in the background — the child may not be comfortable talking about issues. To circumvent this, schools can make provisions for anonymous reporting channels as pointed before. This is also where enlisting the help of community can be useful. For instance, in Chennai, India, the help of a police wing was enlisted to ensure that the cases of child abuse were addressed and attended to, that the children were fed and provided for.
Mundy suggests that we shouldn’t go quiet on our efforts now, “Certainly there seemed to be a fantastic response to the first lockdown, with communities pulling together, identifying the most vulnerable and offering support. However, with increased uncertainty and anxiety, particularly with new restrictions and new strains of the virus, people seem to be less hopeful and the changes in restrictions leads to confusion for many.” It’s still very much an all-hands-on-deck situation. If all entities in the community join hands, identification of safeguarding risks, prevention of such risks and management of the impact can be done more effectively. Having various stakeholders working together can help keep everyone emotionally resilient and better equipped to deal with the uncertainties.