Last reviewed 13 March 2020

What should be the rules governing the use of social media websites by early years staff and volunteers? Martin Hodgson, an early years and education writer, explores the issues.

Social media

Many people today use online social media platforms in order to network with each other and to keep in touch.

There are many such sites on the internet. The most prominent are the following.

  • Facebook allows registered users to create profiles, upload photos and video, send messages and keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues.

  • Twitter allows registered members to broadcast short posts called tweets, to post pictures and to respond to the tweets of others.

  • Pinterest is a platform for sharing and categorising images found online.

  • Instagram is a platform for capturing, editing and sharing photos, videos and messages.

Many users typically access social media via smartphone apps. They can also use computers, laptops or tablets. Sites are very quick to access, particularly when using mobile smartphones, and are highly interactive. Most allow users to “post” comments, entering into a dialogue with each other, sharing ideas, views, photos and videos.

Social media is an integral part of life online for many people. For example, surveys suggest that as many as 80% of young people in the UK have a Facebook account.

Organisations can also have social media accounts. The account can be used for advertising and marketing and for providing news and information.

Negative impacts of social media

Social media is undoubtedly popular, providing people and organisations with an easily accessible way of interacting with each other and sharing information. However, it can also be abused and may have a number of negative impacts if used inappropriately, maliciously or unwisely.

Examples include:

  • confidentiality breaches

  • cyberbullying and “trolling”

  • radicalisation

  • abuse.

Early years staff should be trained to be aware of such issues both as part of their safeguarding duties and when considering their own professional conduct.

Confidentiality or breaches of trust

Early years staff or volunteers should be strongly discouraged from using social media to discuss activities at work.

When communicating via social media, some people may be tempted to gossip about their work or about colleagues, or even spread rumours which may amount to cyberbullying or trolling. They may also talk about things more openly than they might when communicating face to face. Such behaviour is unprofessional and can lead to breaches of confidentiality or trust.

All such behaviour should be covered by suitable policies and code of conduct guidelines. Disciplinary action may be appropriate for staff who fail to comply.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying refers to the use of social networks, email or mobile phones to threaten, upset, embarrass or humiliate someone. Early years staff should be alert for signs of such bullying and report it.

Children in early years are less likely to have unsupervised access to computers and digital devices that make them vulnerable to cyberbullying. However, such devices are a major part of modern life and it is important for even the very young to learn the basic concepts of staying safe online. Many young children will have experience of social media through their parents and may be inquisitive about it.

In addition, staff themselves can also be subject to cyberbullying through social media.

Trolling involves people using the internet, and social media in particular, to deliberately deceive, annoy and irritate others. Trolls may try to encourage others to do something foolish or simply try to sow discord and cause offence.

Radicalisation

Early years providers have a duty to do all they can to help prevent radicalisation and to protect children from being drawn into belief systems that preach hate, extremism, intolerance and violence. Social media is sometimes used by extremist groups to spread such messages.

Sites such as Facebook are obligated to remove illegal content when notified of its presence on their platforms.

All early years providers should support the Prevent duty, the national strategy to safeguard children and young people from being drawn into terrorism. They should also be alert to protecting their staff from such radicalisation.

The Department for Education published non-statutory guidance in June 2015 for schools and nurseries, The Prevent Duty — Departmental Advice for Schools and Childcare Providers.

Abuse

Social networking sites can be used by paedophiles as a way of accessing children and young people and grooming them for sexual abuse. Again, children in early years are unlikely to be directly groomed online as they will not generally have unsupervised access to computers or phones.

However, abusers can use social media to swap messages about abuse, to network with other abusers and even to exchange images and videos. In addition, early years staff or volunteers can be involved in abuse themselves.

Social media policies

All early years providers should have a social media policy which covers their staff’s personal use of sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The policy should clearly state the organisation’s rules on social media so that staff fully understand what is expected of them. For example, it could require that:

  • staff should observe confidentiality by not discussing children, parents or other practitioners when using social media

  • staff should not use any form of social media for personal use while at work

  • staff must not accept children, parents or carers as “friends” on social media

  • staff must not share, tag, post or copy any information from the provision’s social media platform without prior permission from the service manager

  • when using social media staff should always consider how their social conduct may be perceived by others and how this could affect their professional reputation and that of the provision.

All new employees should be made aware of the social media policy during induction. The policy should be discussed at staff meetings and included during training about data protection, safeguarding and information governance.

An early years provider will need to make a decision what “while at work” actually means. For example, will staff be free to use their phones for social media use during breaks?

The policy should be linked to rules about the use of camera smartphones and the taking of photographs on site. All services should guard against the inappropriate use of smartphones to take images or children without permission.

Any official photographs taken by staff and posted online must have signed parental consent.

e-Safety

The social media policy should sit within a wider context of the safety of children while online and the acceptable use of computers by staff.

e-Safety or e-Safeguarding are generic terms referring to raising children’s awareness about how they can protect themselves online.

e-Safety in pre-school children can be encouraged by teaching them to adopt responsible and safe behaviour when using social media. It can also be supported by ensuring that computers and digital systems used within an early years service have the appropriate safeguards and protections in place.

A good example of resources that can be used is the Smartie the Penguin website set up by Childnet International. The site is intended for 3 to 7-year-olds and covers such things as upsetting online content, inappropriate websites and cyberbullying.

Acceptable use policies

Acceptable use policies outline the appropriate use of work computers by staff and the sanctions for misuse. As well as rules about the use of the internet and social media, acceptable use policies should include requirements for keeping personal information private.

Social media security

An early years social media site should be adequately protected against security risks. Systems should be regularly updated so that the latest versions of platforms are used. All security and privacy settings should be enabled and accounts should have strong passwords which are changed regularly. Close and delete any accounts not in use.

Organisations should monitor their social media site regularly. This makes it easier to control content and avoid anybody making malicious or offensive posts. Remember that the site projects the professional image of the organisation. Inappropriate posts can consequently cause reputational damage.

For small organisations, including many early years services, it is wise to avoid running multiple social media accounts. Concentrating resources on one or two will ensure they are properly managed.

Key points for providers

  • Ensure staff are trained on the impact of their personal use of social media.

  • Discourage staff from using social media to discuss work.

  • Ensure staff know they must not accept children, parents or carers as “friends” on social media.

  • Draw up a social media policy which covers personal staff use.

  • Promote e-Safety among children by teaching them to adopt responsible and safe behaviour when using social media.

  • Be alert to signs of cyber bullying among staff.

  • Be aware of the Prevent duty.

  • Ensure social media relating to the provision is properly managed and adequately protected against security risks and inappropriate content.

Further information

  • A Digital Life Skills website is available from Vodafone

  • Childnet International have a range of e-Safety resources for teachers, schools and early years. Their website can be found at www.childnet.com