Lecturer and LANTERN Lead Dr Simon P Hammond discusses internet use in children with additional needs.
‘I wish the damn internet had never been invented.’
If I had a pound for every time I’d heard those words, I would be living on an exotic island somewhere. But, as you can imagine, as I look out of my window at another grey February sky, this is not how these things play out. However, when it comes to how young people with additional needs are choosing to communicate with each other and those around them, the internet (hopefully unlike the grey February sky) is here to stay. So much so that, globally, we know that one in three internet users, or about 800 million, are children. Within the UK context, Ofcom’s State of the Nation 2020 report stated that, in 2020, nearly all five- to 15-year-olds are online and, of this group, 81% reported experiencing online risks. Available evidence paints a familiar story. Young people with additional needs are more likely to experience online risks and have these risks worsen faster than their peers.1 For example, research shows us that autistic children experience significantly more online safety risks and psychological implications of these risk experiences than non-autistic children.2
So, it’s the same old story?
Not quite. Existing literature on potential online protective or risk factors and how they manifest, can be moderated or impact on young people’s mental health remains best described as ‘complex’ rather than causal. For example, there is evidence, albeit limited, that whilst autistic teenagers may be more averse to taking risks online than non-autistic teenagers, a combination of individual (e.g., self-esteem), family (e.g., parental self-efficacy), community (e.g., school stance on online safety) and social factors (e.g., social norms, rules governing digital design) can make them more vulnerable to cyberbullying and social exclusion online than their peers2. At the same time, it is important to recognise that risks do not always mean harms3 – a point we will return to later.
There are likely to be two major risk factors that influence how online risk experiences occur and their consequences. These are mental health challenges and additional needs. Importantly, the two are likely to co-exist, with evidence indicating that children with learning disabilities are 4.5 times more likely to experience mental ill health than children without a learning disability.4 Prior risk factors shape social interactions.5
That’s it then, turn off the WiFi! Not quite, as this is only half of the story. Let me explain.
A recent review looked at how the lack of access and skills for using digital technologies could contribute to worse health outcomes and the widening of health inequalities6. This report illustrates that digital is so engrained in modern life that excluding young people with additional needs is both unrealistic (you can get WiFi on a bus!) and only likely further to disadvantage this group. In trying to address this balance, I find it useful to talk to people about something called ‘digital resilience’.
Digital resilience refers to an ongoing process of learning how to deal with online risks7. It involves learning and recovering from mistakes and develops through exposure to risky events. This involves the deployment of digital literacy skills and knowledge with a view to learning, recognising, managing and recovering from online risks.
This approach takes the viewpoint that learning how to recognise, manage and recover from online risks is an increasingly important and lifelong process for all. This work, funded by the UKRI eNurture, a UKRI network that fosters new collaborations to promote children and young people’s mental health in a digital world) moves the emphasis away from solely focusing on the individual user, but instead places people in their home, community and societal context. By doing so, we can begin to paint a fuller picture of how we can all better empower young people with additional needs to thrive in our connected world.
For example, how are we currently teaching young people with additional needs to become independent digital citizens? Existing Internet Safety Education emphasises universal rather than personalised approaches, missing specific individual and contextual vulnerabilities. This isn’t teachers’ fault; there is no high-quality, research-informed guidance on how to best deliver Internet Safety Education to young people with additional needs, let alone the individual differences this label covers in schools. How can teachers possibly hope to optimally help young people with additional needs if we don’t know what works best, how, why and for whom? We may have good intentions, but we have pants guidance.
Thriving – isn’t there an app for that?
Young people with additional needs experience unique benefits from being connected to the internet1,8. For example, young people living with dyslexia can use writing and idea mapping software to amplify the creativity of their neurodiversity. Engaging with and via these tools can offer young people with additional needs ways to make, learn, grow, play and socialise in ways that are not always possible outside digital environments. In short, connected technologies can be an enabler for young people with additional needs in ways that can be tailored to emphasise strengths and diminish deficits.
The irony here is that too often we can rely upon outsourcing difficult conversations with young people with additional needs. We download web-filtering technologies; we can overly rely on certain applications. But, whilst these play a role, it is the connections between young people, their home environments and trusted adults that remain the hallmark of empowering young people with additional needs9.
But how can parents and carers help to empower young people with additional needs in engaging with and via the internet?
- Remember, risk experiences do not necessarily mean harm3. Mistakes will happen and that’s OK; this is part of learning. If you were teaching a young person with additional needs to write their name, you would not remove the pencil if they poked themselves in the eye. You would, however, comfort them, recognise that they need more support, more time to practice and more assistance compared to their peers, and make these adjustments. Some people may find it useful to attend training courses which will cover issues relevant to this population:
- The NSPCC runs such courses and, whilst these are aimed at educators primarily, some parents and carers may find this helpful.
- A free online self-directed CPD accredited course, aimed primarily at the social care sector, will launch after 18th February 2022. Please see Internet Matters for more information.
- Stop feeling behind and be aware and engaged. Technology is constantly evolving and always will (LPs, tapes, CDs, MP3 etc). Remember that every generation of parents freaks out when young people consume new technologies (back in the 1940s our parents/grandparents/great grandparents thought radios were immoral10!). We must be aware and engaged, rather than anxious. Play games with them. As the following video from Internet Matters illustrates, this will demystify and provide insights into why they like it and what the potential risks may be, so they can then be discussed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnWionq9C4c
- Look at general and specific resources. There are a host of great resources out there that provide generic advice to parents and carers (such as NSPCC and Internet Matters). There are also more specialist resources such as:
- The Inclusive Digital Safety Hub, which focuses more on specific vulnerabilities that are worth engaging with: https://www.internetmatters.org/inclusive-digital-safety/
- Online safety resources for children with SEND by NSPCC: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/online-safety/#SEND and https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/online-safety/online-safety-families-children-with-send/
- The UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) Vulnerable Users group, which continues to develop a range of resources that parents and carers may find useful: https://www.internetmatters.org/ukcis-vulnerable-working-group/#:~:text=The%20UKCIS%20Vulnerable%20Users%20Working,support%20online%20users%20with%20vulnerabilities
- Enable and empower: Keep front of mind that connected technologies can be an enabler for young people with additional needs. Our role is to empower them to thrive.
- Katz, A. and A. El Asam, A. (2020). Refuge and Risk: Life Online for Vulnerable Young People. Youthworks in partnership with Internet Matters. London. https://www.internetmatters.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Internet-Matters-Refuge-And-Risk-Report.pdf https://www.internetmatters.org/resources/childrens-wellbeing-in-a-digital-world-index-report-2022/
- Lundy, L., Byrbe, B., Templeton, M and Lansdown, G. (2019) “Two clicks forward, and one click back” Report on children with disabilities in the digital environment.” Council of Europe. https://rm.coe.int/two-clicks-forward-and-one-click-back-report-on-children-with-disabili/168098bd0f
- https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0044118X14523477 and https://academic.oup.com/bjsw/article/48/7/2058/4803282
- Orben, A. (2020). “The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics.” Perspect Psychol Sci 15(5): 1143-1157
Dr Simon P Hammond is a Lecturer in Education in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at University of East Anglia, Honorary Associate Professor at Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust and member of the UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) Digital Resilience and Vulnerable Users Working Groups. Simon is a Psychologist interested in how digital technologies continue to reshape everyday social possibilities and mental health and resilience implications of increasingly connectivity. His work explores how marginalised young people experience default assumptions of digital inclusion, participation and equality.