Digital‌ ‌safeguarding:‌ ‌what‌ ‌we‌ ‌know,‌ ‌what‌ ‌we’ve‌ ‌learned‌ ‌-‌ ‌and‌ ‌what’s‌ ‌next‌ ‌

AVA recently ran a series of Tech for Good Build workshops on digital safeguarding; here, they share information and resources.

AVA (Against Violence And Abuse), is an expert, groundbreaking and independent charity working across the UK to end all forms of violence against women and girls. AVA took part in the Tech for Good Programme to train frontline professionals working with survivors during COVID-19 and beyond on how to be safe online - both for themselves and for the service users. Through a series of online workshops AVA prepared a comprehensive resource pack based on our expertise, research and feedback given for our online sessions - thus ensuring we are meeting the needs of the current climate and helping people to deliver best practice online. We also developed DigiSafe, a step-by-step digital safeguarding guide. For charities designing new services or taking existing ones online.

Prior to the pandemic, AVA recognised and valued the importance of placing greater emphasis on digital safety. We had already begun to consider the digital aspect of safeguarding and ways in which our work could be used to further support professionals. The pandemic made this focus essential.

An overwhelming number of service users found themselves in situations of increased difficulty and consequently came up against barriers when trying contact support services; for some it became unfeasible to make contact over the phone or face to face. These challenges were not limited to survivors who lived with their abuser, survivors who had left relationships also experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation during an already distressing period. The ever changing nature of the pandemic meant that many charities alongside AVA faced a great deal of change and uncertainty surrounding their ways of working and supporting service users.

What do we know and what have we learned?

Using digital platforms and facilities is an increasingly common and useful means of staying in contact with, and supporting vulnerable adults and children. These tools not only allow for new forms of contact, but for contact to remain consistent when individuals might not be able to access appointments or feel unsafe to do so. 

Online platforms provide a variety of advantages, but can also incur different risks. These risks are  related to both the functioning of the platform itself, e.g. its security and privacy procedures, and the way in which the platform is used, for example, if the individual uses it in a safe space or safe way. Different digital tools will suit different individuals at different times. 

When developing or using digital platforms to engage service users it is crucial to consider the risks  posed by the tech in terms of content, contact and conduct. What is the risk? How likely is it? The severity of the risk and how can the risk be reduced? When engaging vulnerable service users assess their digital literacy and ensure that the context in which it is being used is safe.

So, what about tech abuse?

In today’s world, technology is prevalent in most people’s lives, often unavoidable in fact, and constantly changing. Although many forms of technology offer services and survivors opportunities for support and safeguarding, they also offer perpetrators a new toolbox of ways to stalk, exploit, isolate and control women and children.

In a recent survey Comic Relief found that 47% women who had experienced abuse had also had their online activity monitored by their partner and 25% said they did not know if this was happening or not (highlighting  the covert nature of some of the ways victims can be monitored and controlled online). The report found that: “online harassment is intersectional, often incorporating sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. Abusers may use a vast array of online tactics to harass their victims.”

It is crucial to consider how your chosen digital product may be misused by perpetrators or how they may be tracking the devices, apps and programmes used by victims and children. Even after separation from an abusive relationship, tracing devices, spyware and cameras may still remain on the victim's devices and be present in their homes. Therefore, as professionals we must assess the safety of our platforms and the devices used by those accessing your service/products.  Always ask about previous experiences of tech abuse when assessing new users and remember that if  someone has experienced tech abuse, they may be more fearful or mistrustful of accessing support via tech and may need additional reassurance and support.

What's next for using digital platforms to engage service users?

At the start of the pandemic the idea of providing support services digitally was overwhelming for many of us. However, many of us have observed an increased confidence in professionals and service users utilizing different means of communication and support. This means that opportunities have become less intimidating and in turn, granted greater accessibility, less time waiting for an appointment, less travel, cost and time effectiveness, ability to express oneself in a different way and reduced isolation, to name a few. 

No doubt there are some challenges too… such as lack of facial/body language, access to tech and confidence to use it, bringing work into our home/safe spaces and the disinhibition effect (when identity is hidden people can act in different ways, often this means acting more openly).

Some service users will prefer face to face support while others will embrace this new digital means of communication. By remaining open to these various support options, beyond the pandemic, we enable more choice for our service users in regards to how they engage with us. 

To discuss digital safeguarding training or consultation please email training@avaproject.org.uk

We’d also like to let you know about our 24 hr digital, trauma informed support tool - Breathing Space which you might like to use to complement your support of survivors. Visit it here, or search Breathing Space where you’d search for apps on your mobile device.

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