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Creating safe online spaces for young people

Lessons from the Building Connections Fund

By Kelly Bradshaw-Walsh 15 June 2020 6 minute read

The Building Connections Fund is an £11.5m partnership between seven government departments, The National Lottery Community Fund, and the Co-op Foundation, dedicated to reducing loneliness in England. The Centre for Youth Impact has been working in partnership with NPC on the ‘youth strand’ to evaluate the fund’s effectiveness. In this guest blog, Kelly Bradshaw-Walsh from the Centre for Youth Impact explores how social distancing has led to a new focus on safe online spaces.  


Loneliness can do serious and lasting harm to young people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. Social distancing fractures traditional support networks, making things even more challenging, especially for young people negotiating difficult life transitions. A recent survey of the Youth Sector by UK Youth found that ‘increased loneliness and isolation of young people’ has become the second greatest concern for those working in the sector, after mental health and wellbeing. Social distancing is a huge challenge for anyone working with young people, and is significantly changing the nature of support that can be given.


Re-building connections: adapting to remote provision

Like many others, Building Connections grant holders have been forced to adapt to Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown. When NPC surveyed Building Connections grant holders, they found that 42% had switched to delivering a similar service remotely, and 44% were no longer able to deliver their usual services, so were starting to deliver new and different services remotely (based on responses from 49 out of 125 grant holders).

Whilst some youth organisations are familiar with video chats and online group calls, others have found abandoning face-to-face interaction challenging. Youth workers are worried about keeping young people safe online and building or maintaining good relationships.

Face-to-face contact should not be underestimated, but the good news is that digital interventions can be effective in improving outcomes for young people. The key is to include some form of personalisation or contact with a practitioner. What follows are some of the best resources we’ve found to support quality and safety in online provision.


Keeping young people safe online

Youth Work Support‘s comprehensive guide to Safeguarding young people during the COVID-19 pandemic offers useful tips including how to plan for an online session (e.g. does your indemnity insurance cover online activity?), working safely with young people online in groups (e.g. be careful young people don’t end up spending money on extra data to take part), and what to consider when using online resources (e.g. checking for inappropriate language or references). Meanwhile, NPC’s guide to Keeping children safe online offers advice on balancing the risks, harms and benefits of online use.

This helpful video from Onside gives lots of tips about engaging online, with an informative safeguarding message from Lynn Byrne, Onside’s Safeguarding Manager, in which she offers the following advice:

  1. The usual protocol applies: Everything you know about safeguarding still stands, but there are some new things to consider. Make sure your space is suitable and confidential, that advice can’t be heard by others in the home, and that no one else you live with would be able to identify any young people. If live streaming, you’ll need a second member of staff to act as a moderator with permission to remove or challenge comments. Agree behavioural standards with young people, or remind them of any you have set in the past, and hold everyone (including staff) accountable to them.
  2. Professional boundaries should be maintained: Consistency of relationships is crucial, so expectations of relationships should be carefully managed. Practically, it is important to have a neutral background with no personal items (such as family photos) or anything that identifies where you live. Be presentable and wear your uniform if you have one. In short, if you wouldn’t do it in a youth setting, don’t do it on camera.
  3. Attend to parental permissions: Consider what permissions you already have in place with young people, parents and guardians, and what new permission may be required.
  4. Consider age restrictions and guidance on social media platforms: Different platforms are suitable for different age groups. Use age appropriate platforms, for example Zoom by invitation using parents of guardians’ email address for those under 12. Assess suitability for different young people and adapt to their needs.


Focusing on quality in online environments

The Youth Programme Quality Intervention (YPQI), developed by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, and led by the Centre for Youth Impact in the UK, gives a clear and evidenced picture of what makes a high quality environment for youth development. The pyramid of Programme Quality, which underpins the YPQI, sets out four domains of quality environments, the foundation being ‘creating safe spaces’. The pyramid was designed for face-to-face settings and, whilst more transferability testing is needed, we think the same principles translate to the online world.

Moving beyond, but grounded in the safeguarding practices outlined above, a psychologically safe environment includes:

  • Fostering a positive emotional climate that is mutually respectful, equitable and encouraging;
  • Conveying warmth and respect, with staff using sincere positive and warm words, with a warm tone of voice and body language;
  • Creating safe spaces in which young people share and support each other, such as being able to speak without being interrupted;
  • Demonstrating positive group management styles, characterised by proactive or positive approaches such as calm redirection;
  • Demonstrating mutual accountability, with staff holding themselves and young people accountable to agreed standards of behaviour; and
  • Actively including young people, without bias, from all backgrounds including different genders, religions or sexual orientation.

The YPQI is not used as part of the Building Connections Fund but we believe these insights could help youth organisations to reflect on their practice as they adapt to changing circumstances.


Staying human in a digital world

Social distancing has fundamentally changed how we relate to each other, with even the most basic of interactions moving online. Like any change, we need to attend to these interactions even if they feel clunky and unnatural at first.

Deepr, a partner of Catalyst (a charitable initiative using digital, design and data to improve the resilience and responsiveness of civil society in the UK), have published some very helpful advice for encouraging ‘empathetic interactions’ online. It’s a work-in-progress, but their early findings suggest that relational wellbeing can be supported by:

  • Building and acknowledging equality;
  • Maintaining presence and attention;
  • Enabling autonomy and agency;
  • Ensuring responsibility and accountability e.g. through using real names (unless anonymity is necessary); and
  • Bringing our ‘whole selves’ to digital interactions.

You can read more about Deepr’s work in their blog for Catalyst here.



Safe spaces are just as foundational to online work with young people as they are to face-to-face interactions. We recommend that those working with young people online:

  • Ensure all staff are aware of, and trained in, online safeguarding practices;
  • Create ‘psychologically safe’ online environments as outlined by the YPQI programme pyramid; and
  • Maintain and build healthy personal relationships by attending to the human side of online interactions.

Working through unprecedented change shows how important it is to monitor, learn about, and adapt new practices. Attending to what works and responding quickly to what doesn’t is essential to providing the best online services for young people. Remember to go beyond surveying those who show up. Only by talking to young people who are missing out can you ensure an inclusive space where no one feels excluded.


For more support, follow our Building Connections Fund research.


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