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Electronic Communication

Within the code of behaviour for workers with children and young people there should be clear guidance on the safe use of mobile phones, e-mail, social networking sites etc to communicate with children and young people. Electronic communication has become enormously important and popular over the past ten years. It is an easy way to communicate with young people in particular.

However, there are dangers associated with electronic communication that call for vigilance:

  • electronic communication is often an extremely informal mode of communication which can create the potential for communication to be misunderstood

  • because of the informal style of electronic communication, workers can easily cross appropriate boundaries in their relationships with children and young people

  • some adults who are intent on harming children and young people choose to use electronic communication as a way to meet and ‘groom’ children and young people

Case study

“I was having a difficult time at school and spent a lot of time in chat rooms in the evenings. It was somewhere I could talk about how I was feeling. Someone from church saw my profile picture. I recognised him – his name was Andy. He’s at church most Sundays. He was really kind; he seemed to understand what I was going through. We chatted now and again to start with, and then it became more regular. I trusted him, so I gave him my mobile number and he used to text me while I was at school to see if I was OK.

One day I texted him to say I was having a really bad day and would he pray for me. At the end of school he was waiting for me at the school gate. He offered to take me home. I said ‘No’ because I had arranged to go home with a friend. He got really cross and told me he had arranged it with my parents. I knew that wasn’t true. A school teacher had to come and intervene.”

It came to light that Andy was known to the police for harassing girls. Most of his contacts were made online. As Andy was not involved in the children’s or youth work in the church the church had no reason to have any awareness of his background.


This case study illustrates the way in which electronic communication can be used unscrupulously by people who prey on the vulnerability of children and young people.

The only way a church policy on electronic communication might have helped in this particular situation is if the church in question had clearly communicated to its young people that the only kind of electronic communication that it encourages between its members and its young people is electronic communication of a factual nature, giving information about events and activities. This might have discouraged the girl from entering into the kind of relationship that developed.

It is vitally important to have guidelines regarding the safe use of electronic communication to maintain healthy and safe relationships between adults and children. The church’s safeguarding procedures should acknowledge electronic communication as a legitimate means of communicating with children and young people only as long as strict protocols are followed concerning the nature of the communication.

Electronic communication must never become a substitute for face-to-face contact with young people. With the world of electronic communication changing so rapidly, it is not possible to issue guidance that covers all eventualities. However, there are some general principles that can help to ensure that the church’s overriding concern is for the well-being of the children and young people.

  • parents or carers and children and young people themselves have the right to decide if a worker is to have email addresses or mobile phone numbers etc.

  • workers should only use electronic means of communication with those children and young people from whom appropriate consent has been given

  • workers should not put any pressure on children or young people to reveal their email address, mobile phone number etc.

  • direct electronic communication with children of primary school age is inappropriate and should be avoided

  • only workers who have been appointed under the church’s agreed safeguarding procedures should use any electronic means of communication to contact children or young people on behalf of the church or one of the church’s organisations

  • contact with children and young people by electronic communication should generally be for information-giving purposes only and not for general chatter

  • where a young person in need or at a point of crisis uses this as a way of communicating with a worker:

    • significant conversations should be saved as a text file if possible, and

    • a log kept of who and when they communicated and who was involved

  • workers should not share any personal information with children and young people, and should not request or respond to any personal information from the child or young person other than that which is necessary and appropriate as part of their role

  • workers should be careful in their communications with children and young people so as to avoid any possible misinterpretation of their motives

  • clear, unambiguous language should be used, avoiding the use of unnecessary abbreviations

  • electronic communication should only be used between the hours of 8.00 am and 10.00 pm

  • e-mails to young people should include a church header and footer showing this to be an official communication from a youth team member

Mobile phones

  • mobile phone usage should be primarily about information-giving

  • ‘text language’ should be avoided so that there is no misunderstanding of what is being communicated

  • ‘text conversations’ should usually be avoided (that is a series of text messages/emails being sent to and fro between mobile phones)

  • the use of the phone camera should comply with the church’s policy on photos/videos (click here for further information on photography)

  • workers should not retain images of children and young people on their mobile phone

Instant Messaging Services (IMS)

  • the use of instant messenger services should be kept to a minimum

  • where a child or young person in need or at a point of crisis uses this as a way of communicating with a worker:

    • significant conversations should be saved as a text file if possible, and

    • a log kept of when they communicated and who was involved Social Networking sites

  • if youth leaders are going to communicate via social networking sites consideration should be given to creating a separate profile for the church group

  • alternatively youth leaders should consider having a site that is used solely for youth work communications which is totally separate from their own personal site

  • if youth leaders are going to use their own personal site they should ensure that all of its content is appropriate for young people to see

  • lower age limits of social networking sites should be adhered to (this varies for each site)

  • be aware of the content of photos that may be uploaded on to your site

  • be aware that children and young people could view photos and communications of other people linked to that social networking site

  • all communication with young people should be kept within public domains

  • workers should ensure that all communications are transparent and open to scrutiny

  • copies of communications should be retained and where possible other workers should be copied in on communication

Case study

A youth worker uses his mobile to communicate with the members of his youth group. He is careful to follow the church’s policy and uses text messages only to remind the group of forthcoming meetings and to convey information.

After a meeting of the youth club one evening, after he has arrived home, he receives a text message from one of the young teenage girls who tells him that she is lonely and has no friends. He replies to the text message to try to offer some support to the teenager. The girl responds again, telling him that he is the only person who she can talk to. The youth worker is afraid that if he doesn’t respond, the teenager will feel rejected. A series of text messages goes backwards and forwards until nearly midnight.

The girl’s mother finds the text messages on her daughter’s phone a few days later and is upset at the tone and content of the exchange between her daughter and the youth worker late at night. She contacts the minister and complains about the youth worker’s behaviour.

The minister raises the matter with the Designated Person for Safeguarding who is able to inform the minister that the youth worker had recognised that he had allowed the exchange of texts to get out of hand, and had given a transcript of the texts to the Designated Person.
  • How should the worker have dealt with the initial text message?

  • How does the fact that the worker reported the incident to the Designated Person affect the way in which the church might respond to the mother’s complaint?

  • Does your church give clear guidance to its youth workers that would help them to act wisely in this kind of situation?

 
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