This report provides insight into 6,500+ UK children with some form of vulnerability, how the online world has become their lifeline. Some are to up to seven times more likely to meet particular dangers over the internet than their non-vulnerable peers.
The Refuge and Risk report, in partnership with Youthworks and the University of Kingston, calls for a number of urgent changes in the way vulnerable children receive support, including an approach that considers their offline vulnerability, and parents and professionals being encouraged to think differently about online safety advice for teens.
The report also offers guidance on young people with eating disorders experience some of the highest levels of online harm including viewing suicide sites and encountering someone trying to persuade them to take part in sexual activity against their will.
This report outlines many risks and dangers for vulnerable young people online. Simply put, they are more at risk online, and this report details the types of risk they encounter, by the vulnerability they face.
We are delighted to support the work by Adrienne Katz and Aiman El Asam in creating this report.
From a sample of 14,449 11-17-year olds, of whom 6,500 self-identified as having one or more of five types of vulnerability.
Vulnerabilities are pre-existing factors that are likely to put young people at a disadvantage online or might lead them to experience online lives differently. Five types of offline pre-existing vulnerability have been explored – family and social, communication, SEND, psychological and physical.
The risk types are Conduct, Compulsion, Content, Contact; Cyberaggression and Cyberscams.
Responses from young people in this new and large dataset, provide further evidence of the digital disparity identified in ‘Vulnerable Children in a Digital World’, and Vulnerable Young People and Their Experience of Online Risk.
Young people with prior offline vulnerabilities are at greater risk of harm online than children and young people with none. Equally, the significance of their online lives is also greater.
They turn to technology to be like others, to communicate, to socialise in ways they cannot achieve without it, and of course to learn and have fun.
Many go online to ‘escape my issues.’ In this arena, young people can escape labels such as Special Needs or Learning difficulties. They can form new identities on social media and emphasise other aspects of their identity.
This analysis does not suggest that everyone with an offline vulnerability is vulnerable online, but that they are more likely to be so and multiple offline vulnerabilities increase that likelihood. Lough, Flynn and Riby (2015) discuss the connection between online and offline vulnerability, showing that not all individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will be exploited or vulnerable online, but there may be risk factors to consider, risk factors that are relevant not only to them but to others with developmental disorders who are vulnerable online.
Young people have given us a challenge: to strike a balance between enabling vulnerable teenagers to
take advantage of what the digital age has to offer, while also recognising that very vulnerable young people may come to harm if they are not supported and helped to take all the opportunities afforded them by technology.
To make the most of their online time they could be introduced to positive, creative activities and fun, rather than doing the same activities repeatedly.
Those with special needs, for example, tend to report a narrow repertoire of online activities. A new approach to working with teenagers at risk would explore offline and online life in an integrated way, with nuanced support and prevention of possible further harms by building on strengths and developing digital competence and social skills. Training would include awareness of relationships between vulnerability and risk types.
See related advice and practical tips to support children online: