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The Digital Divide: Social Care Tech and Safeguarding Apps

03 Nov 2020

As we all know smartphones and daily use of downloadable applications (apps) is on the increase. This form of communication has vastly changed how people interact. So why then do we not see an increase within the social care sector and availability for children and practitioners within social work. Smart phone apps are used exponentially within health care settings and is commonly known as health tech, tele care, tele medicine etc. In terms of social care tech there is little known within scholarly literature and evidenced based research.  What is known is that within social care, social workers are beginning to integrate the use of technology into some areas of professional practice. Furthermore there is no differential made between social care tech for children and adults let alone safeguarding and child protection. Social care services have delivered a variety of treatments programmes and been named or referred to within the field as ICT, e-therapies, counselling, video conferencing, email, text, skype, social networking websites,  etc. Using tech in this way within social care has also mostly been client driven and initiated by clients more than the social workers. What does this tell us about the social care tech industry? There is little financial investment both from the private and public sectors in this area as well as a massive lack of innovation for emerging technologies. Safeguarding apps can prove to be beneficial and a supplementary mode of contact (Mishna et al., 2012). However there is currently significant gaps in knowledge regarding ICT use and the availability of apps within social work practice.

As social work practices evolve so does technologically. As part of my PhD studies I undertook a smart phone apps review  in order to conduct a market analysis of any safeguarding children related apps.  The intention was to analyse the basic content, creativeness and availability of any application.  Contemporary anglophile constructions of childhood recognize that children are  being part of families and are associated with certain practitioners, such as teachers, health visitors, midwives, foster carers and also social workers who respond to reported allegations of abuse and have a statutory duty to safeguard. Therefore, the availability of applications for parents and professionals within a safeguarding concept and this theoretical positioning of them is part of a discourse of childhood included in the search.

This app review represented the first study to examine apps for safeguarding children and challenges for social work practice moving forward. Two of the most popular smart phone app stores were searched. They were Android Market (Google Play) and iTunes Store (Apple iPhone).

Three searches were conducted, the first between the period 4th September 2014 and 18th September 2014; the second on the 19th and 20th June 2017 (Carlick, 2018)  and a further search was conducted between the period of  third between the 21st January 2020 and 20th February 2020. In 2014, initially, the project focused on young people. However, this expended to included children in 2017 and 2020. Therefore the term children and young people is interchangeable.

The apps were classified based on the information content into the following categories:

  • General information in relation to safeguarding children or child protection (2014, 2017, 2020).
  • General information relating to self-assessments for children or assessments undertaken by parents (2014, 2017, 2020).
  • Information helping children through decision-making processes especially about their own safety and managing risky situations (2014, 2017, 2020).
  • General information written for children and/or parents or carers/adults in relation to abuse that may cover areas associated with child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health issues (2014, 2017, 2020).
  • General information written for professionals and/or volunteers in relation to safeguarding children (2017 and 2020).
  • General information written for teachers and school settings (2020).

Digital conversations are the new normal for the younger generations (Turner et al., 2019) and this did not come through within the results. The available apps did however evolve over the time of the search and pleasing to say in the areas of professional development but by no means far enough to support the digital youth revolution. The results below are crude and basic for this blog as I want to significantly highlight the gaps in the area of social care tech and as well as the lack of investment into digitally protecting our children and young people. There is investment in UK safety tech but there is a definite omission of the tech for social good within child protection. Astounding isn’t it… The results here are grouped by themes and year dates to show the very small numbers availability. If an app appeared in the years search it was not included in the further searches year on year. Notwithstanding the lack of co-produced apps with professionals and children.

The search in 2014 returned sixty-one apps. Of the sixty-one apps, four were duplicated from both stores, so fifty-seven apps were analysed.

The search In 2017 returned eighty-five apps. Of the eighty-five apps, nine also appeared in the 2014 search. Eight were duplicated on both stores and six were identified as associated with safeguarding adults, therefore sixty-two apps were further analysed.

The search in 2020 returned one hundred and thirteen apps. Of the one hundred and thirteen apps, twenty-five = also appeared in the 2014/2017 searches. Thirteen were duplicated on both stores therefore seventy-five were analysed.

In all of the three searches of the total number of one hundred and ninety -four apps  analysed only five were co-produced with children.

It is clear to see that from 2017 onwards there has been a growth in apps for adults, parents and professionals thus leaving children and young people behind. By 2020 there were four apps aimed at parents and children one of which focused on family safety as a unit, one on victims of domestic abuse which covered all areas of abuse within relationships. The other two were aimed at preventing child abuse.

Apps for parents or adults in 2014 covered topics such as information sharing; reporting via an app produced by Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT); teaching for parents to teach their children about child safety online and safe rules for use of the internet or prescriptive in describing the signs and symptoms of child abuse. One app also covered the topics of behaviour and parenting issues as well as abuse; reflective and GPS tracking.

By 2017 The Safe Parent app was produced as guidance to help become a safe parent for assessing risky behaviours of the adults in their children’s lives. The Safe Sport app designed by the Irish Sports Council was based on the Code of Ethics and Good Practice for Children’s Sport.

2020 there was four apps aim specifically for parents two of which were based on geographical location defined by Country of which one was in relation to sexual abuse and the other in the event of emergencies. Two were in relation to a child’s health one of which was a book on mental health and the other an informative app produced by the NHS. There were three apps based solely on domestic abuse and relationships. There were two apps that act a tool for reporting child abuse one of which was based in a state of the USA and the other in Nepal. Two apps were developed for organisations and linked to only that organisation to facilitate conversations and reporting safeguarding concerns. Two apps focused on sharing of information in relation to child abuse. Three apps were found that were designed as a book or reference to Acts of Law.

2017 apps for professionals covered the following themes: specifically for health professionals, information about safeguarding children and adults for any professional, direct reporting mechanisms into a single agency, enable the user how to make a child protection referral, information to educate and relevant resources and literature, sport, e-learning or training a resource, managing child protection training events and for schools or teaching institutions. By 2020 there were three apps that were for use by social workers or professionals based in the USA to be used for information on child protection. One app was for the UK and worldwide for reporting child protection concerns. The app is only  available to customers who have a subscription. There are a series of four apps for use by social workers in  the UK apps that recreate and share in ‘real time’ scenes from a 15- month Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded sensory ethnographic research project. Seven apps were found that are based on being an platform for information for professionals based within the UK. Three apps were located to training.

Apps for professionals and children did show some advancements in 2017 with the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) app that gives the young person (or user) direct contact to the NYAS helpline. Tootoo was developed in partnership with Barclays to be used in primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities. Students can use Tootoo to report anything ranging from issues of bullying and cyber bullying to questions about homework or worries about a friend.  The app For Me produced by Child Line in April of 2017 has similar features where children can access reference material for tips and techniques for their own wellbeing. Children can make a telephone call, send an email or chat to a counsellor via the app. It has also been created in partnership with Barclays bank.

In 2017 and 2020 apps for young people all came under a health and wellbeing umbrella (2020 to were produced by the NHS). Two apps (2020) focused on on a space for teenagers to ‘chat’, made by young people about Cyber Stranger Danger and Cyber bullying.  In 2014 apps for young people and their parents all had a different purpose from a game to escape a difficult situations; to safe dating for teenagers; to GPS trackers for sharing information. Apps for professional, parents and children in 2017 were all with the same digital content they appeared under the school name. Designed for teachers, parents and pupils to help usher teaching and education into the digital age.

In 2014 three apps and 2020 two apps were found to be co-produced with Children2014.

There are many complexities within social work practice as there are across the health, education and public protection. From the search results it is only in 2020 do we begin to see  a very small growth in apps that even mention the terms child abuse and/or safeguarding. The stark reality is that the numbers are like a needle in a haystack. There is no universal digital provision for the social care sector or safeguarding.  As the traditional face to face continues and on line communications flourish this digital divide is permeated through policy and thus into practice.

Tech can and will at some point change for social work practice as much as it could change for a child at risk of harm. If we do not create new approaches to acquire information and then the digital divide will inevitably  leave the sector behind. How do we marry the digital, apps and emerging tech with social care, children, families and social workers? The overarching values and code of listening to children is recognised internationally as an integral dimension of social work practice (Heron and Steckley, 2018) and yet again it does not seem to be taking place!

What does social work and families do with the mish mash of apps that been developed thus far? The results show how sporadic and unconnected they are to a conceptual framework or strategy for digital safeguarding communications or communities. Moreover there is strong evidence for further research into market analysis to understand more about how ready is the sector and the technical rigor for safeguarding app development.  What I am discussing may at this time seem somewhat radical but amidst a global pandemic which gives opportunities to do things differently, today it may appear unreachable but in the future it will be the norm.

I leave you with this thought …An appreciation of ‘local contexts and existing inequalities will be necessary in harnessing the positive potential of digital technologies for children, both in the UK and globally (Livingstone et al., 2017, p. 137)

Author: Dr Sarah Carlick

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