Interview: Internet Matters calls for more support for vulnerable children online

A new study has revealed that vulnerable children can be up to seven times more at risk in the digital world than those without vulnerabilities. Free online advice service Internet Matters is now calling for a greater focus in how the UK supports vulnerable children.

The report, entitled Refuge and Risk: Life online for Vulnerable Young People, was created by Youthworks in partnership with Internet Matters and studied a sample of more than 14,000 11-17-year-olds. Of those sampled, 6,500 young people self-identified as having one or more of five types of vulnerability.

Speaking to Enable about the report, CEO of Internet Matters Carolyn Bunting, says: “If you know the risks they are more likely to face then the logic is there and you can ask the right questions and make the right investigations to stop it turning into harm.”

Online risks

The new study is part of an ongoing research programme, and reveals that compared to teens without vulnerabilities, young people with three or more vulnerabilities are four times more likely to experience cyberaggression risks. This includes cyberbullying and insults.

They are also three times more likely to be cyberscammed and nearly three times more likley to see harmful content than their non-vulnerable peers.

As many young people rely on technology more than ever before due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, keeping them safe is also more important, Carolyn explains: “Technology underpins everything from staying in touch to education and everything in-between.

“We’ve seen visits to our website really ramp up in the last year and we have also seen cohorts of children being unexpectedly thrust into the world of being connected online because it was the only way of staying in touch with friends and family and, in some cases, education.”

The findings of the report show that these young people face many and varied types of online risks. While their vulnerabilities make them more likely to experience risk than non-vulnerable teens, not having digital access can also be problematic.

If vulnerable young people have their device taken away or are scared of going online, they then lose opportunities to connect and develop socially.

As a result of this, Internet Matter is now calling for a new approach to support vulnerable young people, allowing their online lives to be fully considered in their education and care.

New approach

The risk of online harm is made clear by the report, but it also highlights the importance of connectivity, social skills and development through digital access.

Nearly nine out of 10 autistic teens and 82% of teens with a learning difficulty said that the internet opens up a lot of possibilites for them, compared to 62% of non-disabled children.

Internet Matters is now reccomending that vulnerable children and young people are routinely asked about their online lives by adults looking after them.

“The impulse of parents to protect them by stopping them going online is not the answer, as this may lead to a double-whammy for the child, taking away an important part of their personal and social life that they deeply rely on,” stresses Carolyn.

These conversations should be meaningful, which requires training, resources and investment.

“One of the things we have done is try to develop resources that are easily accessible, being direct, taking out the flowery language but not scare-mongering,” explains Carolyn. “We want to get it right.

“I think it’s all about trying to create resources for families that highlight the issues and make sure young people are routinely questioned and thought about in terms of their digital lives as well as their school, home lives and everything else.”

Meaningful training

This new approach calls for education professionals and adults looking after vulnerable children to be brought up to date with meaningful online safety training, moving away from a one size fits all strategy.

“Online safety education as currently delivered doesn’t work for vulnerable children – and now we have the data to allow meaningful conversations to take place between them and trusted adults,” highlights Carolyn.

“We want to work together with parents, carers, educational professional and tech companies to ensure training and resources are brought up-to-date.”

Read the full report now on the Internet Matters website along with more tips and advice on keeping your child safe online.

Do you have concerns about vulnerable children online? Let us know on Twitter, @EnableMagazine

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