Stopping the discrimination of SEND students online


Children and young people with SEND are not using the internet as much as those without SEND due to cyber-bullying, discrimination and a lack of support. Dr Hilary Emery looks at the disturbing findings of new research.

Last month, the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) embarked on the first ever qualitative consultation to find out what children and young people with SEND really think about using the internet.

A very clear picture emerged: children and young people with SEND are not using the internet as much as those who don’t have SEND, due in part to cyber-bullying and experiences of discriminatory behaviour. The findings, collected through focus groups, revealed that many had experienced cyber-bullying, had not been taught how to use the internet or stay safe online, or were actively avoiding the internet.

Cyber-bullying, as research by the ABA has revealed, is an increasingly growing problem for all children. In October, we found that a staggering 55.2 per cent of children and young people in England accepted cyber-bullying as just “part of everyday life”. And in 2012, Beatbullying found that high-risk groups existed in relation to cyber-bullying, with “those who reported having SEN 12 per cent more likely to have experienced cyber-bullying than those who did not”.

Our consultation suggests that many young people with SEND who do use the internet have first-hand experience of an often discriminatory and hostile environment, with many having personally experienced cyber-bullying and frequent, casual use of discriminatory language and jokes online. Perhaps even more worrying, is the finding that many young people with SEND are deliberately not using the internet for fear of potential cyber-bullying, or because they have received no education, practical or emotional support to get online.

This lack of education was also shown to play a huge part in the internet use of those young people who were managing to get online, affecting their ability to deal with difficult situations which might arise. Many young people reported being unaware of how to stay safe online, unsure of what to do about cyber-bullying and were often unable to understand when bullying behaviour was occurring.

One in five children at school in the UK has an SEN. These children are already more likely than their peers to be excluded, and to be out of education, employment or training when they reach age 18. With the internet now such an integral part of all children’s learning and communication, and a vital tool in the workplace, it is concerning that these young people are in some instances being actively discouraged from using the internet, putting them at yet another disadvantage to their peers. 

Our findings showed that this active discouragement was often down to adults’ own concerns about internet safety or the risk of potential bullying. Some young people felt this was because adults were “scared” of the internet, or unsure how to advise on using it safely. In addition, many had experienced a lack of support and appropriate responses when they reported cyber-bullying, and in some instances felt that they were not believed. It was a shared opinion that adults lacked the skills to deal with the situation, with many advising that the best strategy was to “avoid the internet”.

These findings illustrate the importance of ensuring that children and young people with SEND can enjoy the benefits of technology, by teaching and supporting not only them, but schools, parents and carers. We have produced new guidance to this end which we hope will provide a useful tool for teachers and professionals to help you enable all children to get the most out of what technology has to offer.

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit

Further information
The ABA is working on a Department for Education-funded programme of training and resources aimed at reducing the incidence and impact of bullying of students with SEND. Visit


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