Safeguarding Podcast – Contextual Safeguarding with Dr Carlene Firmin MBE

In this safeguarding podcast we talk with Dr Carlene Firmin MBE about Contextual Safeguarding and the social theory of Pierre Bourdieu. We also discuss why Contextual Safeguarding is counter cultural to traditional child care systems and why the dynamics of adolescence are an absolute nightmare to children’s services.

There’s a lightly edited transcript below for those unable to use podcasts, or for those that simply prefer to read.

Neil Fairbrother

Welcome to another edition of the SafeToNet Foundation safeguarding podcast where we talk about all things to do with safeguarding children in the online digital context.

The online digital context comprises three areas, technology, law and ethics and culture with child safeguarding right in the centre of this Venn diagram, and it encompasses all stakeholders between a child using a smartphone and the content or person online that they are interacting with.

Every so often someone comes along who upsets the order of things, challenges the status quo and points us to a better way of doing things. Today’s guest is one such person who is revolutionizing our system of child social care with something called Contextual Safeguarding and our guest is Dr Carlene Fermin, CBE. Carlene, welcome to the podcast.

Carlene Firmin

Thank you for having me.

Neil Fairbrother

So Carlene, could you give us a brief resumé of yourself please and your team so that our listeners from around the world have a context of your point of view?

Carlene Firmin

Sure. So I am the Principal Research Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire and I head the Contextual Safeguarding program there. The program team is now I think 17 members of staff and we mainly comprised of researchers who are working within children’s services departments in England and Wales,  trying to capture and support what they’re doing and support them in the process of trying to reform the child protection systems and why the children’s services structures to respond to risk that occurs beyond families. And then we have members of the team who manage our online practice network where practitioners can share their learning and resources with each other as they develop their approach.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Excellent. So first question, what is contextual safeguarding?

Carlene Firmin

Sure. So Contextual Safeguarding is in essence an approach to extending child protection and children’s services responses to abuse, to consider contexts outside of the family where young people may come to harm. So our ambition is to create safe guarding systems and child protection responses that can target peer groups, school and neighbourhood relationships and settings where young people encounter harm.

We can do that through the lens of child protection and child welfare, so not solely using criminal justice or enforcement responses to risk outside of families [and we] can leverage the right partnerships to effect change in those places. So key partners in changing a location may be bus drivers or rubbish collectors or shopkeepers as well as social workers and police officers and a system that can manage and respond to measure change contextually.

So how do we know a park is safer? How do we know the work that we’ve done has created safety for a large group of young people, or have we just supported one young person to exit a harmful location and another young person has filled their place? So where are you trying to think about context and measuring success?

So that is a summary really in essence, contextual safeguarding is about systems that can target context through the lens of child welfare with the right partners and measure impact contextually. How you do that, however, is a another beast because we’re trying to create those systems within children and family services and child protection systems that predominantly locate abuse within families and therefore locate the response to abuse as being intervention with an assessment of families.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now, Contextual Safeguarding I think is underpinned by the social theory of Pierre Bordieu. What is the social theory of Pierre Bordieu?

Carlene Firmin

So Pierre Bordieu came up with a few helpful concepts that help us understand the social world. The first was that he talked about “social fields”. So these are contexts, situations, places where there are a set number of social rules and those rules will determine what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable. If you think about the social rules that might operate if you were to walk through a nightclub, they might be different to the social rules that operate when you walk through your office, which might be different to the social rules that operate in a church or operate around the dinner table at home. So there are lots of different social settings where there are social rules at play. And when we enter those settings, we engage with those rules.

Pierre Bordieu then talked about the capital that we draw upon to play those rules. So we have social capital, which is our social networks around us. We have economic capital, which is our financial resources, and we have cultural capital, which is our understanding of the kind of rules, the cues, the norms at play.

So I would probably look quite out of place in an investment bank. I don’t know what the Footsie 100 really means. I can’t afford the snappy suits. So I wouldn’t be able to buy in to the cultural cues of an investment bank where as I probably slot in quite well at a social work conference and I know what a child protection plan is and I can talk the language and walk the walk.

So your cultural capital, your social capital and your economic capital enable you to gain status in any given social field, your investment bank, your social work conference, your church.

Your habitus is your feel for those rules, how much you understand them. So Pierre Bordieu talks about us embodyingrules, so we don’t follow them as a manual, we live and breathe them through us getting know what it’s like to be in that place, so in the way we walk or the way we talk or the way we react. He talks about a tennis player who runs to a net to hit a ball almost instinctively as they learn the rules of the game of tennis, not because they’ve sat back just before they’ve hit the ball and the thought about everything their coach has told them, they kind of embody the rules of tennis and they react. And the more time we spend in social fields, the more time we embody the rules of those places and we react in the moment.

And so Pierre Bordieu’s ideas of social field, habitus and capital are really helpful if we’re thinking about abuse in extra-familial context. We have to think what are the rules that play in the park? What social, economic and cultural capital do young people have to draw upon to survive in that park if for example, they’re at risk of robbery? And are the decisions they’re making and their behaviours they’re displaying a reaction to them embodying the rules of that park?

And so if we want to change their behaviour, it’s not enough to assess that child and family. We have to assess the park. We have to understand the rules that play in the park. And we have to think, is our intervention here changing the rules of the park? Because the context is what’s problematic. Or actually this is a very safe park, but we’ve got one child who’s struggling to understand how you socialize in that park and in which case we have to support them individually.

Now, for the most part, our systems do the latter. They’ll think what’s wrong with that child? Why are they behaving like that? And how do we get them to understand the consequences of knife crime and then change their behaviour in the park. What Contextual Safeguarding argues is that we always have to ask ourselves what are the rules that play in that school, in that public place, in that peer group? Are the rules, the social rules, the thing that need to change through intervention so that there are positive places for young people to be and through that changing people’s behaviour.

Neil Fairbrother

Excellent. That’s a really good explanation. The best one I’ve heard so far. So now you’ve done tremendously well with what you’ve done building on that work with Contextual Safeguarding and it’s been adopted by Her Majesty’s Government’s Statutory Guidance 2018, the statutory framework for working together to safeguard children. Now, what does statutory framework actually mean? What is the result of that?

Carlene Firmin

Sure. So Working Together to Safeguard Children kind of outlines what is expected legally on a statutory footing rather than a voluntary footing, the best way to describe it, for how a local area will respond to allegations of abuse. So most of that guidance previously had focused on what local authorities and their partners needed to do with children and families to respond to abuse.

It’s very helpful that Contextual Safeguarding has been inserted [in the Statutory Guidance] primarily because the wording states that people also need to be thinking about a plan around the environmental factors, the location based factors that move forming that harm not just around the children and families.

So when we have statutory guidance, almost the government’s authorizing people to work in a particular way and to an extent requiring them to do so. So Local Authorities will be assessed by regulators against what’s in statutory guidelines, whereas if something’s in voluntary guidelines, it’s up to them [the Local Authorities] whether they do or not.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. So if it’s statutory and people have to do it, that must mean that there’s a program to roll this out so people have enough knowledge and presumably that’s what you’ve been doing today in part in Hackney which is where we are today?

Carlene Firmin

Yes. So some might say, and I think they probably have a point, that Contextual Safeguarding went into statutory guidelines before we had a blueprint of what that would mean in practice. But I think at the time at which it went in we gave quite a lot of advice to government about what was and wasn’t feasible. And we thought it was feasible that we be suggesting that plans affect the environmental factors that underpin abuse. It’s kind of common sense. If the risk sits on the high street then we have to consider the high street as part of our response, unless we just want to create victim vacuums and keep moving children away from harmful places and let other children fill the gap.

What didn’t happen at that point, and still hasn’t happened, is then a kind of blow-by-blow account of everything you need to do step-by-step in a system and that’s why we’ve been testing Contextual Safeguarding in system since 2017.

So we’re currently running 10 test sites, trying to understand what happens when you try to do this across an entire system. What can you do feasibly within the current guidelines and what requires additional sorts and what challenges or barriers might exist locally and what challenges or barriers exist nationally or across England and Wales (because we’re testing in Swansea as well) to get a sense of what we might need to change in terms of guidance, as opposed to what is just a local consideration.

And that’s proving really helpful. But we will be running tests till 2022 so we were a long way off. But starting the work in Hackney in 2017 gave us a much better insight into how you practically turn those things I was mentioning before, target a context through the lens of child welfare, what that actually means within children’s services departments.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now at the centre of Contextual Safeguarding, you’ve got I think four Domains which you say are “…common sense to everyone outside of the child protection field, but are completely counter-culture to the way we do social work”. So what are those four Domains of Conceptual Safeguarding and why are they counter-culture to the way that safeguarding works?

Carlene Firmin

So they are the ones I’ve mentioned before. So the first Domain of Contextual Safeguarding is that you target the context in which abuse occurs. Now that’s counter-culture because the child protection system was designed to target children and families, not to target peer groups, schools, or public spaces. That’s not what you refer into the child protection system. That’s not what gets subject to assessment and it’s not where the interventions are targeted.

So the whole system is designed around the State intervening when parents are either abusing their children or where they don’t have the capacity to protect their children. And in the case of the latter, the job of children’s services is to build that parent’s capacity to be able to protect their child. So it’s still very much focused on parenting. So the idea that actually the system wouldn’t necessarily focus on parenting in some cases and instead would realize that parentscan’t control what necessarily happens at school or on the bus and therefore you need a broader network of people to be held responsible and to engage with processes is quite complicated.

Neil Fairbrother

It’s when the parents can’t be with the children for perfectly legitimate reasons because of the children’s natural day?

Carlene Firmin

Absolutely. Yeah. And how can a parent have the capacity to protect their child from an organized crime group? Most parents would struggle to do that. Or stop their child’s phone from being stolen on the bus? Or [stop] them being stabbed on the way to the cinema at the weekend, or being sexually assaulted while they transfer between classes at school?

These things are not solely within the reach of parents to disrupt of course, there’s work for parents to do in terms of raising children but we know during adolescents peers can increase in influence, the norms of the social fields in which young people are spending their time outside of families also inform on people’s behaviours and those are the contexts that sit traditionally outside of child protection. So that’s why that Domain is counter-culture.

The second Domain is that the system needs to target context through the lens of child welfare. Historically we’ve targeted particularly public places through enforcement and community safety work, not through child protection for all the reasons I’ve just mentioned.

So child protection focusses on families, anything outside of that is really a crime and community safety issue alone.

The third Domain is that you work in partnership with those that have a reach into the places and spaces where young people spend their time, which once again sounds obvious, but you don’t really have child protection meetings that are attended by the person that owns a laundrette or the rubbish collector. The closest they might get to in terms of safeguarding training is spotting the signs of abuse and phoning children’s services to deal with it, not them being partof the intervention that might then follow that was a slightly different ask.

Neil Fairbrother

So you would take a simple bystander and convert them into a proactive intervener?

Carlene Firmin

Yeah, and not because they’re disrupting a really serious incident in the moment, but they’re creating a safe space for young people to be. They’re engaging in a conversation with young people so that anyone that wanted to approach and groom a young person while they were hanging out in a takeaway shop, for example, would know that the adults that run that shop have their eyes out for young people and are concerned for their welfare and would notice a random stranger just approaching lots of young people and offering to buy them food until one [young] person says yes, and then they’ve started to groom that young person. So they play a critical role depending on who they are in creating safety for young people.

And then the fourth Domain is, as I said, how we measure our success and systems tend to measure success by individual behaviour change, so [for example] this child was missing from home, we worked with them for six months, now they’re not being reported missing anymore, so that means that they’re safer.

And the, you know, we don’t know that they’re safer. We just know that they’re not being reported missing from home. They might still be missing, they might have stopped going missing overnight and started going missing during the school day. They might have been excluded from school, which means they only have to be in alternative education from 9am till 11am, and then they have the rest of the day free. So they don’t need to go missing overnight.

There could be a whole host of reasons why they’re not missing, which doesn’t equate with safety. So it requires the system to think more contextually about how it measures its success to feel comfortable with holding risk for a long time rather than kind of having a specific time period in which a case has to have progressed, otherwise we’ve got to escalate and escalate and escalate it.

And you know, not solely measuring our success by individual counts is really not how the [contextual safeguarding] system operates. Most children’s services leaders will know how many children are open to children’s social care, but they won’t know how many peer groups are open to social care, or how many locations their children have come to harm in.

Neil Fairbrother

Talking about peer groups, I’ve been to a couple of your presentations, which I have to say are very good and if anyone is listening that hasn’t been to one of Carlene’s presentations, then go to one if you can. But you use an example of a peer group map, and when I first saw it, I thought it was a composite, a hypothetical case, because I couldn’t quite believe that everything that happened to the girl, I think 11 years old at the centre of it could possibly happen to an 11 year old girl. But I’ve subsequently learned that it is in fact the real one. Now I don’t really think we should go into the detail of that, but could you describe what a peer group map is and what the purpose of it is?

Carlene Firmin

Sure. So a peer group map has multiple functions. The first is that normally when we’re assessing a young person, a child, in children’s services we want to understand the relationships around them and the extent to which risk exists in those relationships and where their sources of protection in those relationships are.

Historically children’s services will do that by mapping out the family and understand kind of where the protection lies in the family, where there are some challenges, but they rarely map out a young person’s friendship group. It’s not what they’ve traditionally done.

In a Contextual Safeguarding approach, we recommend that they do map out those friendships, a lot of the time with the young person. So alongside that young person, who’s important to you, who’s friends with who, where do you think you sit in the friendship group? Is there anyone that leads more of the behaviours, or anyone that kind of follows? Which relationships are really strong and important to you, which are kind of tangential and quite weak? [We do this] To help us build a sense of where friendship might be a protective factor for that young person and where we might want to bolster protection where we’ve got concerns.

But we can also use peer mapping to map connections between our cases. So the children who are being sexually exploited, for example, a number of them may well be open to children’s services and they all have their own “child in need” or “child protection” plan or whatever plan they have. And they each have their own social worker that’s working on that plan, but those plans won’t be connected.

So even though all those children go missing together, and they all are at risk together, and they all know the same group of people who are harming them, the plan to safeguard them is very individualized, which doesn’t help people work out well, how do we support this group as a collective? Is there one young person that leads a lot of that behaviour? And if we can support them appropriately, we’ll bring the whole group with us.

Is there one child that’s particularly vulnerable? And when things escalate for them, the whole group escalates even though our individual assessments of the other children suggest that everything’s stable.

So we have to understand those peer relationships to do planning properly and then understand how best to utilize our work. So in the example I give in the training, a young woman disclosed multiple young people involved in sexually assaulting her and most of those young people were open to children’s services or youth offending teams, but they each had their own plan and those plans weren’t connected, which meant there was a lot of money spent on the group, but very little impact on the group and on her safety.

And in the absence of understanding that group that sat around her, because in the case people mapped her family, not her friends. I mapped her friends afterwards. It meant the plan around her was very much about her. So to get her out of that situation, she was given a healthy relationships program, a mentor, she was moved out of the area. All these things happened to her, which didn’t affect the group, but her risk was seen solely through an assessment of her and her family and not an assessment of the group.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Then you also have safety mapping. What is safety mapping?

Carlene Firmin

So safety mapping is where you give a young person a map of a space or a location or a whole local authority if you wish, it’s completely up to you, and you ask them to colour code that map by using stickers or colouring it in, or we’ve seen practitioners walking around with phones and kind of asking people to put drop pins on the phones whenever they feel unsafe in their location. When you colour code it red, amber, green, my red zones I feel unsafe. Green zones, I feel safe. Amber zones I feel neutral.

If you find a young person colouring in a red zone with them, be thinking, okay, do you have to go through that red zone? It’s often young people do need to go through a red zone to get to school or sometimes the intervention is being offered is in a location where they feel unsafe.

So then we have to think, okay, well do you have any green people in that red zone? If you don’t have any green people, can I help find a green person for you? Who’s a safe person you could go to if you were feeling uneasy or [who] might have their eye out for you to ensure you’re supported?

So we use safety mapping to understand how young people feel in places and spaces, but also then to think about how we either find green people for them in the red zone or how we turn a red zone green. So if enough young people highlight a zone as red, we might think, okay, we need to really understand what’s going on here. If here’s multiple young people that don’t feel safe, maybe we need an assessment of that location, maybe we need an intervention with that location.

Neil Fairbrother

So a lot of the interventions are things to do with town planning, civil engineering, infrastructure?

Carlene Firmin

It’s a kind of combination. So a plan may involve physical changes to space or design, but it may include building community guardianship in a local space by training people who were already there to understand adolescent development and understand what vulnerability looks like and understand how to approach people, talk to them.

It’d be a safe space for them. Parks is a classic one. So if you’ve got concerns in a park, they might be design things you do like trimming down bushes for example, or clearing spaces so that there’s line of sight, but you might also start doing some more positive activities in the park. So it’s associated as a positive space where young people can spend time and belong there. You might train park gardeners to be safe people that young people can approach if they feel uneasy, you might put detached youth workers in the park to be another safe person for young people to go to.

You could do all sorts of things in a park to build up its capacity to be a safe place and not be a place where adults could approach young people and groom them or where people feel so unsafe they need to carry weapons to get through the park after school. So some of it would be design and some of it would be more welfare-based intervention.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now you gave an interview on the “Just Cause” podcast, and you used an intriguing phrase in it. You referred to the “dynamics of adolescence” and you said that “..our child protection system sees these as an absolute nightmare”, but you also say that “…the people that groom and exploit children use that absolute nightmare perspective of the dynamics of adolescence to take advantage of children

How does that all work?

Carlene Firmin

There are a number of things that play out during adolescence that are particular to this developmental stage. When I’m talking about adolescence, I’m really talking about the age of 10, really starting to transition from primary to secondary school in England, right through to 25, as a period of time where your brain goes through a lot of development, puberty’s happening there’s lots of physical changes.

So during that time in your life, you tend to take more risks. You have a different reaction to risk. You could be motivated by it in quite a different way, so things that might make us feel quite uneasy as adults because we’re jaded by failure and we have more fear about consequences and those kinds of things, young people might be more willing to take chances on.

Young people during this time in their life, are more motivated by short term than long term gains. They struggle with consequential thinking. They haven’t developed the brain cognition to do it and they haven’t got the life experience to know what it looks like if you don’t do the right thing at the right time, 10 years down the line.

They are going through a lot of changes, physical changes, which mean they’re struggling to emotionally regulate. If you’ve really intense feelings about things, really in love with this person and no one else could possibly understand it, and then hating that person and feeling really overwhelmed. And they’ve got this increasing desire for autonomy and decision making that is their own. You know, I don’t want adults telling me what to do, I know what’s best for me, I can’t wait until I’m on enough where I don’t have to tell people when I’m going to be home. I can just come home whenever I want.

Now these dynamics of adolescence, in many respects, are a great opportunity and it’s a great time to be alive because it’s a time in your life where you are willing to take a chance and where you can be motivated by a quick win, where you feel really passionately about things and you want some self-responsibility. You want to kind of take control of your life. So that’s already positive.

But child protection systems and statutory services more generally, so policing, children’s services, can see these things as [a problem because] what they want [that] is easier to work with is a young person who doesn’t take any risks, who thinks about the long term consequences of their actions, who is emotionally stable all the time and does as they’re told.

Neil Fairbrother

It’s not going to work is it?

Carlene Firmin

It’s not going to work. That’s the complete opposite of an adolescent.

So that’s the challenge and that’s why we sometimes have seen this kind of blaming of young people for the situation they’re in. “You’ve chosen to do this”, “You’ve gone against our advice, you’re displaying risk taking behaviours, that’s why you’re in that situation”. It’s all very much seeing the adolescent is a reason why these things are happening because they’ve taken risks or they’ve not thought about the long term consequences of what they’re doing.

Whereas those who exploit children, give them a sense of risk, give them short term gains, a bottle of vodka, a packet of cigarettes, a free meal, riding in a fast car, recognize every emotion as authentic. You know, “Yes you do love me”, “I am your partner”, “No one else understands us”, “No one else understands the connection that we have” and so on and so forth. And [they] encourage young people to make decisions that go against the advice of the adults that care about them.

“They think you’re a child, I know you’re not”,  “I know you’re an adult, they’re trying to control you”,  “I’d never tried to control you”. It’s very easy to exploit a young person when you understand what adolescence is all about.

And you know, that can then be read as saying, well, it’s because they’re adolescents that they’re being abused, but it’s not. It’s because we’re operating protective systems that push against those. If we could work really well with the dynamics of adolescence, then we wouldn’t be in a fight with those that exploit them and those exploit them, [we’d be] winning that battle because we’d be out playing them. But we’re they’re trying to control a young person’s decision making and someone else is saying, no, no, no, no, you made decisions for yourself. You know yourself, you do what’s right. Who are they going to side with?

Neil Fairbrother

Indeed. Now I’m interested in the interplay between the online and the offline world in terms of contextual safeguarding and you know, children move through different physical spaces during the day, the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, the journey to school and the school itself, shops afterwards, the sports club afterwards and so on. So all of those different contexts and all those different people in there, whether they’re red, amber, green spaces or people, they all change as the child moves through them.

But the thing that stays with them that’s constant is the online. Wherever they are, their phone is, and therefore the online context is always with them. Now in your famous concentric circle diagram you don’t represent the online world as a distinct and separate context. Why is that?

Carlene Firmin

Because young people have told me that it’s not a distinct and separate context, and I listened to them. They routinely said to me that online is part of their friendship group. It’s part of their community. It’s part of school. So there’s an argument in school and it’s played out on social media. They’re at a party, it’s live streamed on Periscope or whatever it is.

They, you know, when we look at studies into kind of harm that’s occurring online, I remember when I worked with one analyst who reviewed all the peer to peer abuse cases that were currently open to children’s services, which had an online element and 90% of them, the young person had met the person harming them online in person first, they knew them and then things played out online because that was how their lives were.

So I agree with you. It’s very much part of their day, but for the most part, and there will be obviously situations where all of the contact is online and nobody knows each other, but for the most part, for young people, they describe it as infiltrating every context in which they spend their time rather than being something that’s separate to the other physical spaces in which they spend their time.

Neil Fairbrother

Yes, and I can understand that from the child’s point of view, but from the perspective of safeguarding children online, it is a different space because it is online. You don’t have the bystanders. You don’t have the witnesses, you don’t have the physical world infrastructure online. The classic example you often give is the broken lights in a stairwell, but you can fix the lights. But when you’re online, it’s a completely different space. So from the perspective of safeguarding children, is it worthwhile considering it as a separate entity distinct in its own right, albeit it is interwoven through the life of a child?

Carlene Firmin

I mean, so far our testing would suggest no, but that may change over time. But we’re definitely led by what’s emerging in our test sites. So we’ve definitely got things that emerge online and we do have bystanders online, you know when there’s a chat going on, or someone’s posted something and everyone’s commenting on it. All those people are bystanders. All those people have opportunities to stop the flow of conversation, to challenge the flow of conversation, to leave a group, for example. And we young people that work within one test site wrote to a social media provider about the fact that when they take themselves out of a group, they can be added back to the group even if they don’t want to be. So that was an offline action taken in response to an online concern that they had.

But you know there are elements of it which intersect. So bystanders would be one of them, but also we’ve seen cases where young people have posted a music video online and that music video is calling out another group of young people and they’re instigating violence. And initially people have been very fixated with what’s happening on the platform itself.

But actually the video has been filmed in a public space that is owned by the council where the community centre is locked. Why is it been locked? Why can’t we reopen it? The front door of a vulnerable adult is in the video, how is that vulnerable adult? We know half of the young people in this video, why aren’t we talking to them? Where are their parents? There were so many physical world elements to responding to that video.

The biggest challenge the online element presented was the rapid response. So once it went up, a lot of people saw it very quickly and so escalated reach, but everyone that was commenting on it in the local area that was going to be vulnerable to an attack in the physical world, which was what the concern was, this is going to escalate a violent assault, that violent assault was going to happen in the physical world and all the names of people that are popping up, [they were] people that were known in the physical world.

So the actual video content was helpful in terms of you could see a lot of things that were going on. It provided a source, people to think about where they needed to land an intervention, but most of responses happened in the physical world.

So I think when we’re presented with more cases in our test sites where everything is occurring online and there is no route to doing anything about it in the physical world and you can only intervene online, then we’ll have more of a test case to think about the circles. But for now the test site work and young people’s perspectives would be what drives the design of where we’ve got to.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Does the social theory of Pierre Bordieu apply online?

Carlene Firmin

Potentially, because you would have a social rules at play in various different online platforms and people’s behaviour changes platform by platform and they might do something on a social media platform that they wouldn’t do on another social media platform or whatever.

Their social capital is who they know and the more friends you have or whoever you’re friends with on social media will give you a certain amount of status for example in an online setting.

Young people’s economic capital may have an impact online in terms of whether they can afford to buy certain access to different gaming sites or upgrades or whatever it is, and young people’s cultural capital, their understanding of the language, the cues, the do’s and don’ts. Do you post that image? Do you not post that image? Do you comment on that? Do you use a pseudonym for that? Will all have an impact on safety in the online world.

So you can definitely utilize Pierre Bordieu to explore those things, in the same way that you would say, what are the cultural cues in the youth club? Do you understand them? Who do you need to know when you’re there? Who are your friends? Do you have the money to participate in the activities that everyone else is participating in the youth club?

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now, earlier this year, the government published the Online Harms white paper which introduced the concept of a duty of care for website operators, social media owners and so on. And an internet regulator as well. Now do you think that those proposals will help address online risks and harms? Do you think that will be effective?

Carlene Firmin

Well effectiveness is a big question because that’s all in implementation and that’s kind of slightly beyond my scope at the moment. But in terms of the principle behind it, those types of considerations are definitely aligned with contextual safeguarding in terms of those who are potential guardians of a public space, including an online platform, having a duty to safeguard young people who utilize that space.

And we have seen practitioners engage with that type of language already without having that duty. So schools or children’s services departments who are seeing an escalation on harm being played out on a particular platform, trying to contact providers and raise concerns about it, not just having it sit with the children to not use the platform, especially if it’s a platform that should be safe. Obviously there were just some platforms that would be unsafe for children to be on. So it gives a framework for pushing some of that. But the proof is always in the pudding on these things. I don’t think any single duty will resolve the tensions.

Neil Fairbrother

In the real world, I know we’re running out of time, so I have to be really, really quick now to wrap it up. In the real world a child is protected by certain laws. For example, they are unable to buy alcohol below a certain age and able to buy fireworks and so on. So they go into a real store there are certain limitations and you could argue that it’s a form of protection for them. And it’s an age, age is the trigger there. Do you see Age Verification for being online in some way as being a useful thing or is that a hammer to smash a walnut?

Carlene Firmin

I probably don’t know enough about it to make a sensible comment that I feel is based in evidence. All I would say is as a researcher and somebody that works more generally on these things that there won’t be a silver bullet. So if there was an evidence base to suggest that Age Verification online will make a difference to how safe young people are, then great.

I think with anything like alcohol consumption, for example, Age Verification means we can’t have any people buying alcohol all the time, everywhere they are. But do young people still consume alcohol? Yes, they do. Do we still need substance misuse programs, alcohol awareness, support, peer support, all sorts of things out and about helping people think about alcohol consumption even though we have a legal age? Yes, we do. So the same would apply in the online world.

Neil Fairbrother

Carlene, I think we’re going to have to leave it there. It’s fascinating talking to you, Thank you for putting so much time available at the end of what has been a very long day for you. Fantastic.

Carlene Firmin

Thank you for having me. Thank you.


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