Video technology keeps children in care connected to families

Published by  News Archive

On 21st May 2020

family on video call

Digital platforms are helping to keep children living in residential, foster or kinship care in touch with their birth families during lockdown, and could have a role to play in maintaining these vital relationships beyond the pandemic, according to two new reports carried out by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the National Centre for Social Research, published today.

Face-to-face contact between looked-after and adopted children and their birth families has not been explicitly forbidden while social distancing measures are in place, but guidance from the Department for Education issued in April noted that it would ‘for the most part, need to take place virtually’.

The new studies—one on the experiences of families and professionals involved with managing contact during lockdown, and one on what is known more widely about the implications of digital contact for the well-being of children—were commissioned by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. They offer insights into how agencies have been responding to the new challenges, and how digital communication might be incorporated into contact arrangements during and beyond the pandemic.

Almost 200 children’s social care professionals, foster carers, kinship carers or adoptive parents, and birth relatives (predominantly mothers) responded to a survey carried out by UEA into their experiences of contact since 23 March. According to the survey, video calls have been used widely to replace face-to-face contact during lockdown, with Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype all being used to stay in touch alongside text messaging and phone calls.

Generally older children and young people were more likely to feel comfortable using digital technology in this way, and for some it was a preferred way of communicating that felt more ‘normal’ than professionally supervised contact. Though there were positive experiences reported, both parents and children have mourned the loss of physical closeness: ‘It left him feeling the loss of her hugs’, said one carer about a boy and his mother.

The significant challenges came when using video calls with babies and young children (predominantly the under-fives) as well as some older children with disabilities, or where children’s relationships with their parents were not generally good and children disliked having this contact in their ‘safe space’. The most devastating potential impact was parents’ concern that this could reduce the chances of a child returning home, with the loss of physical contact seen as detrimental to developing or sustaining a relationship.

Lisa Harker, director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said: “For some children, particularly teenagers, digital contact could be valuable in the longer term. The evidence suggests that the quality of contact is more important than its frequency or medium.

“The reticence among practitioners and carers about using digital platforms for the children in their care may well be assuaged by experience during the pandemic. With clear benefits for certain children, it seems important to find ways to adapt digital technologies to address adults’ concerns about boundaries and safety, rather than avoid them altogether.”

Professionals in the study recognised the benefits of greater integration of the different people in children’s lives as foster carers started communicating directly with parents for example. Foster carers also reported positive experiences of being more involved in organising contact for the children in their care, though some struggled to manage boundaries once contact was happening in their own home.

Digital poverty or inexperience with technologies has been a barrier on both sides though, some carers and families said they had struggled to manage without computers, smart phones or WiFi, or the confidence to master new platforms.

Prof Elsbeth Neil from the Centre for Research on Children and Families at UEA said: “Using digital technology to help children connect with their families has presented new challenges as well as opportunities and it is clear that an individual approach is needed.

“The challenges have been greatest for the youngest children as it is harder for them to connect with parents just on a screen. But this has been a time of rapid learning. Carers, professionals and parents have all been finding creative ways to make calls more child friendly and have a family like feeling, for example by including games, songs and stories.

“The importance of the adults around the child working together to find solutions has been underlined.”

A review of studies from the UK, USA, Canada and Australia, conducted by the National Centre for Social Research, noted the specific benefits that digital contact can offer, such as more regular and informal connection, helping children and parents to keep up with each other’s day-to-day lives. The review also indicated that digital contact should be used to enhance, rather than replace, face-to-face contact.

Perspectives on the value of digital contact can vary, however, and young people’s enthusiasm for digital contact is not always matched by social workers and foster carers. The review found adults are often more worried about how to maintain the safety and boundaries of digital contact, whereas young people value the greater sense of freedom that digital communication affords them.

Dr Padmini Iyer, senior researcher in the Children and Families Team at the National Centre for Social Research, said: “This research shows that the immediacy of digital contact can help young people feel more connected to their birth families and in control over their contact arrangements.

“Adopting a child-centred approach and providing professional support for all parties involved are key to ensuring positive outcomes, especially in the context of social distancing measures. We hope the review will support policymakers and practitioners managing the transition to digital contact during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Study Social Work at UEA

More world-leading research

Latest News

  News

Common antidepressant should no longer be used to treat dementia 

A drug used to treat agitation in people with dementia is no more effective than a placebo.

Read more >
  News
Tall rainforest trees
18 Oct 2021

Dr Nem Vaughan awarded Philip Leverhulme prize

The prestigious award recognises outstanding researchers.

Read more >
  News
Ziggurats and trees on UEA campus
15 Oct 2021

UEA’s great outdoors celebrated for a fifth straight year with international Green Flag award

The last 18 months have placed more value on green spaces than ever, and students arriving at the University of East Anglia (UEA) for the new academic year can...

Read more >
  News
Power station chimney emitting smoke
12 Oct 2021

How recovery from COVID-19’s impact on energy demand could help meet climate targets

New research examines different scenarios of energy-related demand and how they could impact climate mitigation targets.

Read more >
Are you searching for something?
  News
Power station chimney emitting smoke
12 Oct 2021

How recovery from COVID-19’s impact on energy demand could help meet climate targets

New research examines different scenarios of energy-related demand and how they could impact climate mitigation targets.

Read more >
  News
House in Brazilian Amazonia.
07 Oct 2021

Study reveals impact of wild meat consumption on greenhouse gas emissions

Consuming sustainably sourced wild meat instead of domesticated livestock reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more >
  News
29 Sep 2021

Could Vitamin-A bring back your sense of smell after Covid?

Researchers at the University of East Anglia and James Paget University Hospital are launching a new project to see whether Vitamin A could help people regain...

Read more >
  News
27 Sep 2021

Children who eat more fruit and veg have better mental health

Children who eat a better diet, packed with fruit and vegetables, have better mental wellbeing – according to new research from the University of East Anglia...

Read more >
  News
27 Sep 2021

Amazonian protected areas benefit both people and biodiversity

Highly positive social outcomes are linked to biodiversity efforts in Amazonian Sustainable-Use Protected Areas, according to new research from the University of...

Read more >
  News
25 Sep 2021

How rabbits help restore unique habitats for rare species

European wild rabbits are a ‘keystone species’ that hold together entire ecosystems – according to researchers at the University of East Anglia.

Read more >
  News
24 Sep 2021

Ageing the unageable: UEA researchers develop new way to age lobsters

Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have identified a way of determining the age of a lobster based on its DNA.

Read more >