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The effects of digital contact on children and young people’s wellbeing

Teenager on video chat
Published: May 2020

This rapid evidence review examines the effects of digital contact on the wellbeing of children and young people who have been separated from their birth relatives in public and private law contexts.

Aim

This rapid evidence review was commissioned by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory following the implementation of social distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the UK in March 2020.

According to UK government advice at the time of the review, local authorities remained obligated to allow looked-after children ‘reasonable contact with their birth families. It is therefore crucial for policymakers and practitioners to understand how digital technologies can be managed to maintain contact, while prioritising children and young people’s best interests.

Findings

The evidence indicates that it is not possible to simply state that digital contact with birth families is either positive or negative for children and young people’s well-being. Digital contact should be considered within the context of children and young people’s wider digital practices. This raises the following key questions for professionals:

  • How can digital contact be meaningfully regulated?
  • How can children and young people be supported and equipped to manage digital contact themselves?

The key findings from the review are:

Digital contact can help facilitate more immediate, less formal relationships: The more immediate and less formal nature of digital contact with birth families has key benefits for children and young people’s well-being. It can allow them to feel more connected to their birth families, develop their sense of identity through family connections, and have more freedom and control over contact arrangements.

It can be difficult for carers and professionals to set boundaries and supervise digital contact: Key challenges in digital contact include negotiating the amount of responsibility placed on children and young people in care to manage digital contact. There is also the potential for unwanted digital contact from birth family members and associated risks to their safety and emotional well-being.

Digital contact can help to overcome physical distance between children and young people in care and their birth families: Digital contact provides a means for contact to continue in the context of social distancing requirements. Digital contact can also provide a means of contact when the costs of face-to-face contact, for example related to travel, are prohibitive for birth or placement families.

Digital contact should be used to enhance rather than replacing face-to-face contact: Private law studies highlighted that children, parents and professionals alike feel that there are benefits of face-to-face contact that are lost through digital contact alone.

Appropriate forms of digital contact depend on the child’s age and experience: Findings from private law studies indicate that appropriate forms of digital contact depend on a child’s age and existing digital practices. Children and young people of all ages need to be supported and appropriately supervised given the potential associated risks and challenges.

Methodology

We followed an adapted rapid evidence assessment (REA) methodology for this review. Studies were included if they focused on children who have been separated from their birth parents following public law proceedings, accommodated in care on a voluntary basis, or placed in permanent arrangements such as adoption or special guardianship. We also included evidence from private law contexts, including separation and divorce.

Findings reported are based on a proportion of studies that were accessible within the timeframe of a rapid review, and which met our inclusion criteria. The review therefore may not comprehensively summarise all relevant evidence. A total of 16 key studies were identified for inclusion: 11 focused on public law contexts and 5 on private law contexts. Study countries included the UK, USA, Canada and Australia.

Download from the Nuffield website