Many young people with SEN or disabilities have not been taught how to stay safe online and have experienced cyber-bullying, it has been revealed.
The research findings come alongside new guidance that has been published this week by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) to help schools tackle the problem more effectively.
The ABA study, which involved qualitative focus groups with students with disabilities, learning difficulties, mental health issues, and emotional and/or behavioural difficulties, also discovered that many of the young people are using the internet to create an “anonymous persona to mask their disability”. Others were actively avoiding going online.
Many participants reported a lack of education on issues such as cyber-bullying or internet safety, which hampered their ability to deal with difficult situations online. The researchers said that this even extended to some young people struggling to understand when bullying behaviour was occurring.
One young person told the researchers: “I know there’s things that have happened to me online, and when I’ve spoken to teachers they said it was cyber-bullying, but I didn’t realise. I don’t think sometimes they realise what they’re doing is bullying.”
Participants explained that frequently the cyber-bullying was an extension of the prejudice and bullying they faced in school. They also complained that adults often lacked the skills to deal with it, with some advising them simply to stay off the internet.
One participant said: “I get bullied because of my disability. (I’m) told to put up with it. They don’t care. It’s like it’s my fault because I’m disabled. I don’t think teachers know how to deal with it, what to say or how to deal with the situation.”
Indeed, the findings show that many of the young people are consciously not using the internet, either through a lack of support (practical or emotional) to get online or because of a fear of cyber-bullying or “enhancing existing social pressures”.
A common theme in the focus groups was the anonymous nature of the internet, which the young people used to hide their disabilities. One student added: “No-one knows I’m disabled. You use avatars and stuff. No-one knows who you are online.”
Martha Evans, senior programme lead for SEND and inclusion at the ABA said: “Our findings show that cyber-bullying, and the frequent use of disablist language, are serious issues facing children and young people with SEND when using the internet; but that teachers and parents are not always equipped to provide the advice and support that young people need.
“Research shows that children and young people with SEND are more likely than those who don’t have any SEND to experience bullying within schools, and to see this may also be the case in cyber-space is extremely worrying.
“We would like to see more in-depth research into the issue, but ultimately the solution lies in better education: not only in the classroom, via formats which ensure the information is accessible by all children and young people, but also better training for teachers and support for parents.”
The new guidance, Cyberbullying and Children and Young People with SEN and Disabilities: Guidance for teachers and other professionals, has been written by ABA and Childnet International.
It has been written specifically for schools and outlines the common issues that staff need to be aware of as well as actions that might be taken To download the free guidance, visit go to www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk