Putting it all into context

Contextual Safeguarding was developed at the University of Bedfordshire out of Dr Carlene Firmin’s research, working alongside practitioners and agencies and has been incorporated into HM Government’s statutory guidance ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018’.

What is Contextual Safeguarding and how does it apply online?

Contextual Safeguarding recognises that harm to young people happens in a range of places or spaces that they pass through during their typical day, and includes those outside of the home and family, and in a range of ways.  It recognises that the different relationships that young people form in different contexts such as their neighbourhoods, schools and online can feature at least threats of violence and abuse, if not actual violence and abuse[1]. This is represented by the Contexts of Adolescent Safety and Vulnerability diagram below:

Figure 1: Contexts of Adolescent Safety and Vulnerability (Firmin 2013)

These threats can take a variety of different forms including: exploitation by criminal gangs and organised crime groups such as “county lines”; trafficking, online abuse; sexual exploitation (offline as well as online “sexting”) and even the influences of extremism leading to eventual radicalisation[2].

Parents and carers have little influence over these contexts, and young people’s experiences of extra-familial (or indeed intra-familial) abuse can undermine parent-child relationships. Therefore, children’s social care practitioners need to engage with individuals and sectors who do have influence over or within extra-familial contexts, and recognise that assessment of, and intervention with, these spaces are a critical part of safeguarding practices[3].

These individuals could be shopkeepers and shop workers, taxi-drivers, maintenance workers, shopping centre security staff or cleaners… leading to an army of non-traditional “contextual safeguarders”. Former unwitting bystanders become proactive participants in safeguarding children as the children progress through different contexts during their day. These contextual safeguarders need to be aware of what signs to look for and, while not being safeguarding experts per se, will understand what action to take.

This, in theory at least, leaves no room for the real-world predator to act, it squeezes them out of the daily routine of children, it closes the chinks through which they can penetrate and perpetrate. But what about the online world? Where are the “safeguarders” in social media?

There are none. Children are very much left to their own devices.

And yet the University of Bedfordshire’s Contextual Safeguarding Briefing document says: “Given this contextual nature of safety and vulnerability during adolescence, systems and services designed to keep young people safe need to engage with the dynamics at play in extra-familial, as well as familial, settings[4]”.

Cyberspace indivisibly permeates all of the real-world contexts illustrated in Figure 1, yet the Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018 statutory guidance barely mentions it, even though data from Ofcom shows that children of all ages have ready access to smartphones and tablets:

Graph 1: Tablet & Smartphone ownership among Children Ofcom 2017

Social media blows the whole thing wide open

Getting access to children no longer means that predators have to break into “traditional” contexts where children congregate outside of their home, or breaking into the family circle by becoming a trusted friend. A special interest group such as the Scouts, Guides, Cadets or a sports club is relatively hard for a predator to penetrate and pervert, partly because these days they have to clear DBS checks but also because they have to deal with other adults. They have to put in a lot of effort, and maintain that effort, to get at what they want. It’s a risky operation, but historically it was the only way, and for them therefore it was worth it. And for some, the risk is no doubt part of the attraction.

Social media provides predators with a new direct access vector to children as by using fake profiles, predators can easily pose as children, and the usual parental gatekeepers aren’t present. The targets, the victims, being so young, don’t have the cognitive skills, awareness, experience or knowledge to check that this person is who they say they are. The “friend of a friend” syndrome is perfect for predators – a child might “like” someone, or become a friend of someone, simply because a real friend of theirs likes them. It’s easy to acquire new child contacts at relatively low risk (fake accounts with virtually untraceable use of the Tor browser for example), with minimal effort and high reward.

Social media as currently implemented destroys the traditional barriers between individuals, both peer-to-peer and predator-to-victim. On the one hand social media does enable individuals to connect and explore, to seek out specific kinds of groups with whom they can identify perhaps more easily than in the real world, groups where they can find like-minded companions, where they can find a sense of belonging, which is a good thing. But on the other hand, predators know this and can easily infiltrate these groups to further their own ends and bypass traditional gatekeepers – parents and the like. Predators can “risk assess” multiple children on a previously impossible scale from the comfort of their home, without the same degree of risk they would face in the real world.

In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream

Internetmatters.org says this about online grooming:

“Groomers may go to a social network used by young people and pretend to be one of them. They might attempt to gain trust by using fake profile pictures, pretending to have similar interests, offering gifts and saying nice things to the child.

Once they have the child’s trust the groomer often steers the conversation towards their sexual experiences[5], even asking them to send sexual photographs or videos of themselves [a phenomenon known as “victim-generated images”]. Some may try to set up a meeting, or even blackmail children by threatening to share the pictures or videos with the child’s family and friends.

Online groomers are not always strangers. In many situations they may already have met them through their family or social activities, and use the internet to build rapport with them. Sometimes children don’t realise they’ve been groomed, and think that the person is their boyfriend or girlfriend[6].

This gives rise to new “points of online risk”, the need to reduce the likelihood of these moments of online risk from occurring and the need to deal with the fallout of any moments of risk that happen. Although it is impossible to know the full extent of the risks young people face online, there is strong evidence to show that the risk is increasing. Data from the NSPCC for example shows that there has been a huge increase in sexual offenses against children in general across the UK. The number of social media users across all platforms continues to climb. In the first few months of the new offence of “sexual communication with a child”, there was a total of 3,631 offenses for the UK as a whole.

Figure 2: Sexual Communication with a Child offences, NSPCC

SafeToNet Ltd and The SafeToNet Foundation, a safeguarding charity, work across all of these areas to provide a complete safeguarding ecosystem.

Safetonet safeguarding ecosystem

Safetonet extends contextual safeguarding into the digital space. While the “Working together to Safeguard Children” statutory guidelines refer to digital and online, it doesn’t go into any detail as to how this could be done. It doesn’t for example explain who the online contextual safeguarders are – or who they could be. SafeToNet is a technical solution to this technical social media problem and intervenes at the moment of risk to help safeguard the child. It adds the digital dimension to Firmin’s Contextual Safeguarding model (compare to Figure 1):

Figure 3: Online and Digital as a context that needs safeguarding

SafeToNet’s technical solution, an AI-powered smartphone app, accompanies the child throughout their day through all the real world contexts through which they interact, helping to safeguard them against moments of risk online, which can happen anywhere in the real-world and at any time, as illustrated below:

Different real word contexts. The traditional safety of the family home has been breached by social media

The SafeToNet Foundation – prevention and rehabilitation

SafeToNet Foundation’s mission is the advancement of the protection of the public, particularly children and young people, from harm arising from contact with unsuitable material on the Internet or similar media, promoting the welfare of those affected by it, promoting education and awareness of e-safety and online social issues and carrying out or funding research by ourselves or third parties into such issues, the useful results of which will be disseminated for the public benefit.

What does this mean in practice?

We exist to safeguard children from online cyber-abuse and to deal with the consequences of it should it happen. We will do this by:

  • funding programs with third party charities to undertake remedial action, such as
    • counselling
    • therapeutic projects and activities
    • caring for and otherwise supporting victims of cyber-abuse
    • and to help prevent this abuse from taking place by researching causes and effects of cyber-abuse and effective prevention strategies
  • educating the public and special interest groups about preventative strategies
  • raising awareness of the damaging impact of child cyber-abuse
  • campaigning for any relevant laws and self-imposed rules and regulations to be upheld by social media companies and government
  • and to undertake political activity to ensure any new laws are passed that can be effective in the safeguarding of children.

SafeToNet organisation’s complete safeguarding ecosystem

From the educational activities we offer, in collaboration with 3rdparty subject matter experts such as The Anti-Bullying Alliance, the IWF, SaferLondon, we hope that people will learn about the dangers of the internet and social media in particular, the behaviours of “groomers” so that children and parents are aware of signs to look for, the behaviours of children that have been groomed, parents would learn what to do and not do in the event of discovering their children have been approached or groomed, or have been “sextorted”.

We will use a mix of tools and techniques for our educational program such as webinars, videos, podcasts, blogs, downloadable PDFs – infographics and detailed reports based on research. In the real world we will organise and attend networking events, seminars, conference speaker slots using the results of research and other programs as the basis for content, and other suitable events.

It’s a huge challenge, but one we’re more than prepared to take on.




[3]Contextual Safeguarding Briefing.pdf


[5]Section 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 inserts a new offence into the Sexual Offences Act 2003, at section 15A, criminalising sexual communication with a child.

[6]https://www.internetmatters.org/issues/online-grooming/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIi-36wJb73AIVSZPtCh0oYgVdEAAYASAAEgJllvD_BwEboyfriend or girlfriend

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