Vulnerable children risk becoming ‘lost in digital space’

Internet Matters report highlights the heightened risks vulnerable children face online.

Joe Lepper | 19th Feb 19
Image shows a child with her mobile phone looking depressed and crying 820379104

A not-for-profit online safety organisation is warning that vulnerable children are becoming ‘lost in digital space’ where they face risks such as cyberbullying, cyber fraud and sexting.

A study by Internet Matters found that around two million vulnerable children, including those with disabilities and mental health issues, are at particular risk online.

Other online safety risks they face include seeing harmful content, such as those that promote self-harm and suicide.

The study, based on the experiences of around 3,000 young people aged between 10 and 16, found that children in care and young carers are almost twice as likely to be cyberbullied than their peers.

One in four (27%) of children with special educational needs view sites that promoting self-harm and 25% view sites that encourage anorexia, compared to 17% of their peers in both cases.

Young people with hearing difficulties are also more likely to be involved in sexting and are five times more likely than their peers to say that the internet upsets them.

Those with learning difficulties are a third more likely to spend more than five hours a day online compared to their peers and also a third more likely to have their social media account hacked.

Improved online safety education

Internet Matters is calling for more intensive, specialist internet safety education and support for these groups of children and those that care and work with them.

“The research reiterates how society’s most vulnerable children need extra support and care in their digital lives  and how a child’s vulnerability might be an indication of the type of online risk they are more likely to experience,” said Carolyn Bunting, Internet Matters Chief Executive Officer.

She added: “It’s important to remember all the opportunities the online world can offer young people, for example, it gives young carers a place to connect with one another and combat feelings of loneliness.

“But if the risks are not addressed and openly discussed, these children could slip through the net and miss out on the many advantages and instead see their vulnerability used against them.”

Also involved in the online safety study is Youthworks and the University of Kingston.

“A generation of vulnerable children are growing up without the digital support they need – effectively lost in digital space,” said Youthworks Director Adrienne Katz.

“There is a lack of training and up to date advice for those who live and work with vulnerable children.

“Their digital lives seldom receive the same nuanced and sensitive attention that ‘real life’ adversity tends to attract.

“At best they receive the same generic online safety advice as all other children, while specialist intervention is required.”

Ministerial backing

Those backing the online safety research include Digital Minister Margot James, who said the government is to publish a White Paper soon setting out clear safety responsibilities for tech companies.

She added: “As this research shows, with the rapid pace of technology we must ensure young people and those caring for them have the tools to face the challenges of the online world.”