By Guy Russ
Over the past few months, organizations have scrambled to reinvent their programs and activities for a virtual world in the face of COVID-19. With summer now upon us, and COVID-19 still with us, it’s time to take a hard look at the summer programs your organization offers for children.
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.
If you aren’t yet comfortable holding in-person programs this summer, keeping it virtual is a great option. But remember, virtual programs have their own unique set of risks. Particularly when dealing with children in an online environment, cybersafety needs to be at the top of your priority list.
So, how do we keep children safe in this virtual landscape?
First, your program facilitators need to really understand the online tools they’ll be using. How will they work for the needs of the program? And how can they be exploited by those with bad intentions? Also find out what information a platform collects from participants and what happens to that information.
In a survey conducted over the past 11 years by the Cyberbullying Research Center, about 28% of young people reported having been bullied online. 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.
If your organization is conducting or considering virtual programming for children, you should learn how to recognize cyberbullying. It’s also important to promote a supportive environment for your young participants so they will feel comfortable reporting any bullying behavior they encounter.
Any virtual programming should include a written code of online conduct that parents and participants are required to sign. That code of conduct should specifically express expectations around cyberbullying. Getting parents involved also can add another layer of supervision to the program and help with setting online boundaries for children.
If you become aware of cyberbullying between program participants, the Cyberbullying Research Center provides a list of tips for how to respond. It is also helpful to know the laws on cyberbullying, which can vary by state.
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. Background checks are essential, but a screening process goes beyond that to help your organization recognize high-risk responses on applications, reference forms and during an interview. Screening questions should be designed to identify potential grooming behaviors used by offenders to gain the trust of their young victims.
Second, develop and train on clear and comprehensive policies and procedures. Staff should contact participants only through the program’s official channel. According to MinistrySafe, avoid one-to-one communication (by telephone, Skype, Facetime, direct messaging); all communication should be public and transparent.
It’s also vital to protect the personal information of your participants. This goes back to knowing what information your platform collects and how it is used. Information that could be useful to online predators should be closely guarded. Also, instruct children not to share their own personal or identifying information online.
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.
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.
As we move forward through this unprecedented time, the safety of those you serve needs to be at the top of your priority list. That applies whether you’re reopening for in-person services and activities or keeping things in the virtual realm for the time being.
Guy Russ is the assistant vice president of Risk Control at Church Mutual Insurance Company.