Keeping children with SEND from getting ‘lost in digital space’

with CEO of Internet Matters Carolyn Bunting. 

For children with access to the internet, lockdown saw a sky-rocketing of the number of hours they were spending online. That's not going to change for the next couple of months as we head into summer, with many more of us forced into staycations or simply staying at home.

It's not all work they've been doing, but watching YouTube, watching are participating in social media platforms such as TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, as well as internet-enabled gaming on mobile, PCs and dedicated consoles. As parents, it's vital you ensure that parental controls are in place. I just wish I could manage to remove our Sky box parental controls now my kids are both adults!

For many children with disabilities, diving into online use is no different. But what is of concern is the danger of lower levels of awareness of danger when navigating the big bad World Wide Web. To help, a new online safety hub from Internet Matters, has just been launched aimed at children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). 

The findings of the workshops and extensive consultation with young people throughout the hub creation identified key areas where children with SEND needed greater support and more focused advice to stop them ‘falling through the net’. The findings, which have been detailed in The Life Online for Children with SEND report, identified areas where young people with SEND differ from typical children in relation to online safety. 

Today on SNJ, we're joined by CEO of Internet Matters Carolyn Bunting to explain more about the hub.

Life online for children with SEND - and how we're helping to protect them by Carolyn Bunting, CEO of Internet Matters

Last year, Internet Matters worked with YouthWorks to take an in-depth look at the online risks facing the UK’s most vulnerable children. The robust study demonstrated it was possible to predict a child’s online risks based on their offline vulnerabilities and worryingly revealed that those with physical, mental health and additional learning needs faced getting ‘lost in digital space’. 

The report highlighted that if we can predict, we can intervene, but the success of that intervention is determined by the tool and training available to parents and professionals.  Everything we have heard from both groups suggests that such resources do not exist.

Internet Matters has continued to invest in research into this area in a bid to provide those vital resources for families living with SEND and provide the online safety education that these young people and their parents or carers, so desperately need. 

This is a report about differences, and commonalities. About how children with additional needs use social media in the same way as their non-vulnerable friends, with potentially different and unconsidered consequences. About how parents and teachers of these children, who they describe as “innocents online” are profoundly concerned about their online lives. About the gap between what young people are doing online and
what parents think they are doing.

It’s a paper on how parents, who are already struggling to support their children with additional needs, believe that it is impossible to keep them safe on social media. Equally, they are the same parents who see the immense positives for their children, perhaps their non-communicative autistic son ‘comes alive’ when gaming – because he’s not known in that community as ‘different’ or ‘special’ he’s just a gamer, accepted for his interests and applauded for his skills.

Life online for children with SEND
Connecting safely online image

The need for the SEND online safety hub

Working with Youthworks, we held extensive consultations with young people and their parents / carers and teachers and most recently, a series of workshops, to identify those key areas where they needed greater support and more focused online safety advice. Having the lived experience of young people with SEND at the heart of the hub was critical to ensuring it would meet their needs.

The workshops revealed while children with additional needs used the internet in precisely the same way as everyone else, their experiences were different, especially with unconsidered consequences. The workshops revealed a series of key areas where children with SEND needed greater support. 

It highlighted how young people with SEND often lack critical thinking skills and therefore the consideration for consequences that young people without these additional needs have. This can mean they are more trusting of both people they encounter and content they see online. It also meant they had fewer concerns around privacy and were keen to have public profiles as a way of boosting their popularity. 

We found that children with disabilities are more open to parents and carers being involved in their online lives and having their devices regularly checked. However, information on terms and conditions of social media was simply ‘impenetrable’.

From the report:

  • Young disabled people use social media in the same way as everyone else – they enjoy the social validation it brings them, worry about being sufficiently popular online and get frustrated when they report things and seemingly nothing happens. They want to be connected with friends, family and celebrities, to be entertained and to check sites for updates – either news updates or friend’s status updates.
    • Generally they were not satisfied with the outcome when they reported issues, saying they'd prefer a kinder message suggesting other ways of getting help, or better reporting ‘categories’ to describe what happened or to be able to attach evidence.
    • As part of their additional needs, some young people tend to stick to the rules, so don't understand why there aren't always consequences for wrongdoing online. This also makes them more likely to accept what people say online and trust them.
  • Young people with SEND are aware that risks and harms exist, but are less able to take steps to avoid them, either because they simply did not recognise them as such in the context of their own social feed, or did not feel able to act. A lack of critical thinking skills was a key issue that will impact their online experience and drives a significant amount of parental concern.
  • Young people with disabilities are more likely than most to accept what people say online and to trust what strangers or friends say, without considering the consequences. However, these young people are also sophisticated enough to recognise that they had received messages that avoided using certain words to evade being picked up by algorithms for contravening standards.
  • Terms and conditions and community standards documents are clearly not written for disabled children and they find them impenetrable. This is disempowering and compounds the experience of helplessness if reported issues are not addressed by the platform.
  • Young people with additional needs are generally more accepting of parental involvement in their online lives than their non-disabled peers. Most stated that their mum checked their phone every night and some were pleased that their Mums were able to sort out issues for them.
  • However, while sharing with their mum is one thing, the lack of concern about privacy and personal data was quite telling. While everyone had heard of privacy settings and some knew a lot about them, there was confusion about what these settings were intended to protect, with some people saying they do not use them because they have nothing private on their profiles.
  • It is clear that some young people had public profiles and followed remarkably high numbers of people in an attempt to increase the number of followers they had, thereby proving they were popular. Private settings were not deemed desirable by the young people as it would make it impossible to get followers and therefore impossible to demonstrate popularity.
  • Many of the young people also couldn’t see a need for privacy, with one commenting: “I got no personal info so no need.” These young people wanted online safety resources created specifically for them. This would mean really easy navigation, content provided by experts who were young and relatable, with lots of videos and small chunks of text. These guidelines should be simple, straightforward, and direct.

Find the whole report here

The benefits and risks of life online for children with SEND

Parents or carers of young people with SEND recognised the huge benefits of the online world for their children from them having the ability to use non-communicative media such as gaming to the support they find on social media - they revealed concerns over their ability to keep them safe on social media. 

Their fears ranged from their child developing extreme views, to worries that their child could be easily manipulated online. They also highlighted how there is a lack of unambiguous and authoritative advice on how to help their children safely navigate the online world and guidance on how they can interact together online.

The workshops had highlighted once again that a one-size approach to online safety doesn’t work and we needed a supportive and enabling approach to help equip both young people with SEND and their parents and carers with the tools to keep them safe online. 

Bespoke advice

The new hub - which we developed in partnership with Youthworks and funded by Facebook – provides online safety advice for young people with SEND, advice for their parents/carers and a range of activities to do together. The resource, which jas been welcomed by safeguarding minister, Victoria Atkins has welcomed, offers bespoke and specific advice for both parents and carers and young people. 

In these unprecedented times, when we are seeing the amount of time vulnerable children spend online increase, we hope that the hub goes a long way to make young people with SEND and their parents or carers more aware of the risks. We hope that it provides them with the tools to tackle them head on to ensure they don’t get lost in digital space or don’t fall through the net. 

We look forward to continuing our work in this area and equipping all families with the right advice and support they need to keep their children safe.

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Tania Tirraoro

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