Connecting and sharing online

To help children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) connect and share safely with others online, we’ve provided insight and advice on what you can do as a parent or carer to support them.

What’s on the page

What you need to know

Connecting and sharing online can be a lifeline for children with additional needs. It allows them to stay connected to friends and family and express themselves in ways they may not be able to in the real world. However, with the benefits, there are also potential risks due to the nature of interactions online.

FAQ: How is socialising online different for young people with SEND?

  • Interacting with others online through social media or other platforms has become an important part of young people’s lives and even more so for those with SEND.

The Benefits

Of course CYP with SEND use the internet to connect in just the same way as everyone else – to make and maintain friendships and share experiences. But the benefits may be greater for these young people because:

  • Friendships can be easier to maintain online especially if not attending a local school
  • Online connections can offer an escape from being the child who is always seen as ‘different’ or who has additional needs – they can be themselves
  • Connections can also be made in supportive and nurturing environments and provide a place to explore common interests
  • Some children may find socialising behind a screen easier than face to face
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Where do young people go to socialise

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The Risks

From our research, we know that CYP with SEND experience greater risks when it comes to content, contact or conduct risks.

Any child, from any background can be at risk of the following risks online. But some are more vulnerable than others:

  • CYP told us they are aware that risks and harms exist, but less able to take steps to avoid them, either because they simply did not recognise them in their own social feed or did not feel able to act
  • This lack of critical thinking was a key issue that will impact their online experience. These young people are more likely than most to accept what people say online and to trust what strangers or friends say, without considering the consequences
  • Whilst many CYP do not understand the data implications of their online lives, this may be even more complex for CYP with SEND. They may be confused about privacy settings, and about what they were supposed to protect, as they think they have nothing private on their profiles
  • Numbers of followers is often seen as an indication of popularity, which can be even more important for CYP with SEND who are often excluded and made to feel unpopular. This means private settings are even less attractive as it would make it impossible to attract followers
  • It’s likely that there will be a greater need for parent/carer and child conversations about online life and who they are connecting with – to ensure these children are safe online
Areas of risk of a child

  • Content – being exposed to inappropriate or harmful content which may include bullying and abuse, or harmful topics (e.g. pornography, self-harm, etc)
  • Contact – meeting strangers and being involved in high-risk relationships online
  • Conduct – where a child behaves in a way that contributes to risky content or contact or is the recipient of harmful conduct online like being cyberbullied

It is important to be aware that:

  • Certain difficulties or impairments can put children with SEND at heightened online abuse such as sexual abuse, coercion, online grooming, etc
  • CYP tend to see no boundaries between on or offline life and often become victims online, through someone who knows them offline and is aware of their difficulties/impairments. In this way the perpetrator has the knowledge to manipulate their target especially if they have SEND.
  • CYP SEND are more likely to experience all online risks compared to those without any difficulties.
  • Out of the different types of risks, children with SEND are significantly more likely to experience contact risks online. Examples of this include sexting under pressure and coercion. They appear to be preyed upon and singled out
  • Although they interact less than their peers, CYP with communication difficulties are more likely to visit gambling sites and spend more time in chat rooms. Chat rooms facilitate immediate and direct communication between users and when targeted at CYP, are known for explicit sexual talk, innuendo, obscene language and aggressive sexual solicitations
  • Experiencing contact risks is also associated with a greater risk of seeing harmful content and experiencing more aggressive behaviour from others online.
Life online for children with SEND report light-bulb

This report summarises the findings of the workshops and extensive consultation that we carried out with young people, parents, carers, and teachers to help us to create the Connecting Safely Online hub.

View report

The Challenges

While most of us feel confident we would not be taken in by somebody not being who we thought they were online, or to sense a person’s questionable intentions, young people with SEND may find this more difficult to spot. They may be:

  • More likely to believe what they’re told by friends and strangers
  • More trusting and have a greater belief in what they see and hear
  • More likely to send explicit photos because they are tricked into believing this is a loving relationship
  • Less able to think critically about what they share and the consequences
  • Less able to spot risky situations
  • Less discriminating of both their own behaviour and the behaviour they see

What things should you consider?

Here are a few things to think about to support CYP:

  • Know the risks and what questions to ask to detect and avoid risky situations
  • Be aware of what they do online, the platforms they use and the people they connect with
  • Whilst technology solutions are incredibly helpful, on their own, they are not sufficient to prevent harm
  • Think about what they are doing online rather than just the time they spend doing it
  • Support their desire for autonomy and independence
  • Don’t ban technology or social media – it’s a key part of how CYP connect and communicate
  • Can they manage the online risk they may face?
  • What are they sharing with others?
  • If they are too young or their disability makes it harder for them to recognise online risks, try social apps made for under 13s

Practical steps to protect them

Talking and sharing online removes physical barriers and gives children with SEND an opportunity to find their tribe to feel accepted. Along with the clear benefits, it’s important to assess if they are ready to be active on social media.

If they are already connecting online, using tools and strategies to help them get the best from their online interactions is key.

Are they ready and equipped to socialise and share online?

  • Can they manage the online risk they may face? Children with SEND are more likely to experience risks so it’s important to consider who they will be talking to and what strangers or friends may ask of your child. Our research suggests these risks include sexting under pressure, coercion, blackmail, and threats to send images
  • What are they sharing with others? Get your child thinking about what they post online and what this says about them. Helping them understand the difference between what is private and public, how people may use the information they share, and what’s appropriate behaviour online will help minimise online risks they may face
  • If they are too young or their disability makes it harder for them to recognise online risks, try social apps made for under 13s to give them a chance to learn the nuances of communicating online in a safer environment. Find out more

Things you can do

Setting up for success

Here are a few things that you can do with your child to help them get the best out of their interactions online and build good online habits.

Create a digital family agreement

Use this family agreement template to come up with a list of digital rules to set boundaries on how children and young people interact online and what sites and apps they use. This can help to manage expectations with children on what they should and shouldn’t do online. It is also a great way to document and reinforce the behaviour you are trying to encourage.

Set up tech safely

  • As a parent or carer of a child with additional needs, having greater visibility and supervision can be extremely helpful to reassure you your child is doing fine. But also when things run the risk of going wrong, this allows you an opportunity to intervene early and to create learning moments with your child.
  • There is an increasing number of apps and software solutions that can both help you and your child to look after themselves. These can help you monitor their activities closely and allow you to intervene if or when they need your help.
  • Always tell your child what you are monitoring and why. Recognise that children will want some privacy, so be prepared to adapt and reduce the level of monitoring you put in place as your child matures. Only intervene in situations where you think your child is at risk of harm.
  • Check out our Set Up Safe checklist for advice on how to create a safer space for kids to explore and connect online.

Managing wellbeing

Make use of accessibility features on devices

Both Android and Apple devices have a range of accessibility features that you can customise to help your child get the best out of their experience online. These can help children who have visual or hearing impairments or communication difficulties.

Keep checking in

To foster trust and help you stay engaged with what they are doing online, schedule regular check-ins to talk about what they do online and review and reinforce the agreed digital rules that you have set together. You can also use the time to review their security and privacy settings on the apps they use.

Use privacy settings

Most of the popular social media platforms have a number of different tools and settings that you can use to manage who your child can interact with online. Make sure both you and your child are familiar with the tools. If a platform doesn’t have ways to manage their contacts then think twice about letting your child use it. For more information on how to make the best use of privacy settings see here.

Managing their time on social media

It can be easy to lose track of time spent while scrolling through the latest updates on social media. There are a number of social apps and tools that allow review or set limits of the time spent on these platforms. Below are just a few you can encourage children and young people to use.

  • Instagram – Your Activity allows you pause notifications, set limits and see how much time you’ve spent on an app
  • Your Time on Facebook – allows you to manage notifications, set time limits and review time spent on the app

In addition to these tools, there are in-built screen time tools on Apple and Android devices and all game consoles that can help both you and trou track keep an eye on how they are spending their screen time.

Set up family & friendship groups

To support a child with additional needs it can be helpful to set up their account together and guide them towards friends and family members they can add. Equally, creating close friends and family groups is safer as they will only be able to share with people they know. Doing so can reduce the risks of connecting with strangers that could cause them harm.

You could also choose to follow them on the network they use but it’s important to listen and watch rather than interact to give them the freedom to be independent.

Conversations to have

Build up children and young peoples’ resilience to make safer and smarter choices online. Do so by engaging in regular, open, bitesize conversations with them about their lives online is one of the best ways to build and develop coping strategies. It also gives you an easier way to know when to support them.

Risky situations they may face

It is important to think about the right way to talk to a child who is experiencing vulnerabilities about online harms. It may be that a child is more sensitive or anxious and being too graphic or hard-hitting may cause unnecessary worry to them.

Reassure them that with the right setup and the right behaviours, you can work together to ensure any risk they face does not turn into a harmful situation.

Talk to them about what they might see

They may stumble across sexual, violent, racist, discriminatory content or comments which they may find upsetting. Agree that if they see anything upsetting online they will come and share it with you so you can help them decide what to do about it.

Children experiencing vulnerabilities are more likely to experience both bullying by their peer group and abuse or hate from strangers online. Get advice to support them here.

Talk to them about what they share

Make them aware of how they should protect their personal information – such as the name of their school, address, password, phone number, and email. Make sure they know it’s wrong for anyone to ask, pressure or coerce them into sharing personal information or sexual images, that it will not be their fault and you won’t be angry with them.

Children experiencing vulnerabilities are more likely to overshare personal or inappropriate information about themselves online. Get advice to support them here.

Strategies to resolve potential issues

Managing friend requests

You may feel the need to approve all their friend requests or agree that you will look through their friends’ list together every now and again.

People being unkind

If they feel anything is upsetting, encourage and educate them to use tools like filtering comments, mute, block and report. Ensure they can come to talk to you or a trusted adult in their educational setting.

Request to meet

Ensure they know never to meet up with anyone they have only met online, and again come to you or another trusted adult to tell them if they’re asked to do so.

Responding to unsolicited messages

If they receive an unsolicited message you might ask them to simply block that user or come and share them with you to agree on how to respond if at all.

Request for images

Ensure they know to say ‘no’ to any request for an image and then tell you about the request so you can establish if it is something to worry about.

How to manage their digital footprint

  • Discuss how their online activity creates their digital footprint and how this can impact them as they grow
  • Encourage children to keep things positive online and treat people as they would like to be treated
  • Talk about the nuances of communicating online like what emojis and text speak means and how using capital letters in a message can imply that someone is shouting. List of the meaning of emojis 
  • Help them think about the unintended actions of sharing or liking an image of someone that makes fun of them
  • Encourage them to stay true to who they are offline so their true online identity is reflected

What your role will be to support them

Children with additional needs often will need additional parental engagement when it comes to making safer choices about what they share and what they see online. However, depending on their age and ability they have a right to some privacy, and as they mature into adulthood, it’s important to encourage independence.

Whatever tools, rules, or controls you use to keep them safe online, make sure your child knows you are doing it and why. It’s important that you give them the right to discuss this with you and that as they demonstrate they are making good choices, you can and will reduce the level of engagement you have. Find out more here.

Dealing with Issues

As a parent or carer of a child with SEND you may already be concerned about the issues they can be exposed to. To help you deal with these potential issues we’ve provided guidance on things you can do and places you can go for support and further advice.

Although children with SEND are more at risk, risks do not always lead to harm. It’s likely that your child may talk to strangers online while gaming or in a group chat, or may experience negative comments, but the key thing is to ensure they know how to recognise warning signs to stop it turning into harm.

It’s impossible to protect children from all situations that they may face but being prepared with an action plan to support them, can give you the confidence you need to give them the support they need.

Here are some steps you can do (you will want to adapt it to fit with your knowledge of your CYP):

What are the main issues?

Sexual abuse online

Any child, from any background, can be at risk of sexual abuse online. But some are more vulnerable than others. The independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) found the most common concerns raised of a sexual nature were online and peer-on-peer abuse. They highlighted the challenges of managing children’s online safety and peer relationships

Coping strategies

  • Immediately block and delete the perpetrator
  • Reassure your CYP it’s not their fault – they are probably feeling just as scared and worried as you. Let them know that your main concern is that they are safe and that you want to help them. CYP often worry about the ‘stigma’ of having been abused. Avoid treating your CYP as if they are different in any way because of it
  • Having calm and open conversations – explore what is happening in an honest and supportive way. Bear in mind that CYP who have been abused will find it very difficult to talk about it
  • Avoid questions that might be felt to be intrusive or pressurising – instead focus on understanding how they are feeling now and what they might like from you
  • Has the abuse definitely stopped? – often abuse continues even after a CYP has told someone about it)

Where to go for support and advice

  • Report it! If you suspect a child is a victim of online sexual abuse, report it immediately to CEOP or IWF
  • If your CYP is in immediate danger contact the police on 999, for the local police, 101. You can also report a problem by visiting our report issue page.

Emotional abuse online

Any child, from any background, can be at risk of emotional abuse online. But some are more vulnerable than others.
This includes emotional blackmail, for example pressuring children or young to comply with sexual requests via technology. It can also involve deliberately trying to threaten, manipulate, scare or humiliate a child or young person.

Coping strategies

  • Immediately block and delete the perpetrator
  • Don’t confront the alleged abuser
  • Explain what you’ll do next
  • Reassure your children it’s not their fault – they are probably feeling just as scared and worried as you. Let them know that your main concern is that they are safe and that you want to help them. CYP often worry about the ‘stigma’ of having been abused. Avoid treating your CYP as if they are different in any way because of it.
  • Avoid questions that might be felt to be intrusive or pressurising – instead focus on understanding how they are feeling now and what they might like from you.
  • Has the abuse definitely stopped? – often abuse continues even after a CYP has told someone about it)

Where to go for support and advice

  • Report it! If you suspect a child is a victim, report it immediately to CEOP or contact the police. You can also report a problem by visiting our report issue page. Alternatively you can contact: Relate on 0300 003 0396. You can talk to Relate about your relationship, including issues around emotional abuse.
  • If you think your child is in immediate danger call 999.

Sexting

It is common for young people to talk about sharing sexual images, and this can make them think that it is expected or normal to send nudes in romantic relationships. It’s not widely done among young people, but children with SEND are consistently more likely to have shared sexual images.

Those with mental health issues are nearly twice as likely to send explicit images (12%) compared to those with no issues (6%).

Children who experience a range of other vulnerabilities are also significantly more likely to send images including 23% of those who have an eating disorder, 20% of young people with a long-standing illness, 16% with hearing loss, 16% of those with autism and 15% who experience speech difficulties.

With this in mind, it’s important to advise children that they should not feel pressured to send a nude to keep a relationship going.

What is the harm?

If your child is involved with a friend or part of a group who is controlling and pressuring them into doing things for them, this could escalate into requests for nudes. Your child might naively believe that these people are their friends and, in his or her eagerness to be accepted, your child may do what is asked.

If a child is receiving many more messages than before at all hours or hides their phone or becomes secretive when questioned, these might be signs that they are at risk. At times the intention is to hide the relationships from parents and carers so it’s important to stay engaged on who your child is connecting with when they are online.

Coping strategies

If your child is being pressured to send a nude by someone at their school or other organisations like a youth group, approach the organisation as there should be a person who leads on safeguarding that will follow steps needed to investigate and report it.

Since January 2016 the police have the option to record an incident as “Outcome 21”, which makes a note of it taking place but not putting it on a criminal record. Many sexting incidents are now dealt with in this way. However, for more serious incidents (for example, deliberately sharing an image to abuse – using the image to coerce or exploit the victim) prosecution may still take place.

  • Encourage your child to tell you if anything worries them online or on their phone
  • Do not shame or punish them, instead of helping them to understand that this is not appropriate or even lawful

Where to go for support and advice

Childline – If you are under 18 you can report a nude image online

CSO – Connecting safely online

CEOP – If you need to make a report to one of CEOP’s Child Protection Advisors.

The Zipit app can help your child fend off requests to share nudes from young people they know. It provides witty ways to say ‘no’ and advice.

Childline – a free helpline.

Childnet Project deSHAME – resources for educators to tackle sexual harassment.

Grooming

For some children, making friends online and chatting to strangers can offer a form of escapism or it can compensate for their offline reality.

At times even if you’ve had a conversation with a child about not chatting to strangers online, they may still do it regardless to fulfill a need to expand their friendship groups to feel accepted and liked.

Predators may use online platforms to build a trusting relationship with the CYP to abuse them. This abuse may happen online or they may arrange to meet the CYP in person with the intention of abusing them.

Coping strategies

Whether your child is playing games with people they’ve never met or started a relationship with someone online, it’s important to take the following steps to keep them safe from online grooming.

  • Find out more about who this person is and the true nature of the relationship. Make it a point to check-in with them regularly about the platforms they use and the people they interact with on these platforms
  • If possible, keep devices in shared family spaces so that anyone contacting them knows they are not alone
  • Discuss what they should and shouldn’t share online (even if they trust that person)
  • Encourage them to keep their personal information private
  • Talk about consent so they feel confident to say no if they are feeling pressured to do something they are not comfortable with
  • Don’t make them feel bad about seeking affection online but take the time to explain the safest way to explore their feelings
  • Ensure they know where they can go for help if they get in trouble or are concerned
  • Review their privacy and security settings on apps/platform
  • Teach them how to block and report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. If you are at all concerned about a contact with your child then report to CEOP

Steps to take if your child has sent an inappropriate picture of themselves to someone online

  • Reassure them that you will work together to deal with it
  • Explore the facts – Who was the image shared with and was it passed on?
  • Contact the website provider – ask for the image to be removed from the platform
  • Contact the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) if the image was sent to an adult as this is grooming

Cyberbullying

For children with SEND, cyberbullying can take the form of a manipulative relationship, for example, a child may feel that those doing the manipulating are friends and may feel pressure to do what their ‘friends’ say because they want to stay part of the group.

Cyberbullying can also take the form of an exploitative relationship which is usually done by someone your child knows very well. It relies on a person knowing to target your child’s triggers to bait them into doing something or getting angry or upset for their entertainment.

Sometimes it can also be based on a conditional relationship that involves a person making your child believe they have a close relationship – in order to demand things from them at times in secret. This is why it’s important to think about their emotional needs rather than simply enforcing rules.

Coping strategies

If a child with SEND is a victim of cyberbullying they may find it hard to recognise it or to even tell you who is doing the bullying, so it’s important to:

  • Know who they are connected with online
  • Think about why your child might be continuing a relationship with someone that is toxic (as it may be fulfilling a need to be considered part of a group)
  • To help them recognise that a relationship is wrong, explain why it can put them at risk. Discuss what a healthy friendship looks like so they have a reference point. Set up a closed friendship group on social media and encourage family members and genuine friends to ‘like’ and comment on their posts

Oversharing

While sharing online can be a great tool for young people to showcase aspects of their life or support causes, in the heat of the moment, it can be easy to overshare personal information that can put them at risk.

What is the harm?

Sharing personal information that can make it easy for someone to find out where they live or go to school can put them at risk in the real world. It could also put them at risk of identity theft or even online grooming if they overshare with someone that may have bad intentions.

Our research shows that children with additional needs are more likely to be exposed to contact risks which include online grooming. So it’s important to teach them to keep their personal information private.

Coping strategies

To help them share safely online and protect their personal data, here are some things you can do:

Conversations to have

  • Make sure they know what is considered personal information
  • Have a chat about why it’s so important to protect this information. You can use scenarios to explain what happens if the wrong person (like someone who they’ve only met online) has access to their personal information
  • Discuss that what they share creates a digital footprint reflecting who they are to people they don’t know so it’s best to keep it positive
  • Remind them anything they post online will exist in the digital space for indefinitely
  • Talk about what is okay to share. It’s important that you highlight the great things that they can share to have a positive time online. Also, you should encourage them to interact with groups of friends and family that know them to reduce the risk of something going wrong
  • It’s also important for children to recognise “who are strangers” online as some children may think that the users they regularly play games with, think it’s okay to share with them

Practical things you can do

  • Review their privacy settings to stay in control of what they share and with who on the apps they use
  • Hide personal information from the public on their accounts (i.e. picture in their uniform, school name or address)
  • Encourage them to set their accounts to private so that they can manage who can contact them and see their content
  • If they prefer to stay public, agree on ground rules on what they should share and who they can talk to. It’s a good idea to review their friends’ list together regularly to make sure they have not accepted friends request from strangers

Peer Pressure

As social online norms change, young people seeking acceptance online are taking risks they otherwise wouldn’t do just to part of a group. This is especially true for children with SEND. An example would be sharing a video or image of them taking part in a challenge or prank or sending a nude to someone for a joke or because they like them.

What is the harm?

It can normalise and desensitise them from anti-social behaviour if they are part of a group that encourages bad behaviour.

If they are pushed to take part in sending a nude or humiliate themselves ‘for a laugh’ it can put their emotional wellbeing at risk.

As children with SEND are more influenced by what they see online, being exposed to forums that promote extreme risk can lead them to adopt values that can affect their behaviour and sense of self.

Coping strategies

It’s important to make young people aware of how to deal with this peer pressure so they know how to feel the confidence to say no if they don’t want to do something that may put them at risk. Children often seek out rules to direct how they interact online and offline. Therefore, giving them clear boundaries of what they should and shouldn’t do online can deter them from feeling the need to take on these risks.

Here are things that you can do to help them deal with peer pressure:

Practical things to do

  • Help them recognise when they feel pressured into doing something – this is simply understanding why they are planning to do something i.e. FOMO, losing a friendship etc
  • Encourage them to challenge anything that feels wrong. This could be questioning the intentions behind someone asking them for something or assessing the risks a challenge poses to their life
  • Talk about your own experience to show that it’s nothing new, it’s just experienced differently
  • Dispel online myths that may cause your child to feel pressured to do something they’re not ready for
  • Makes sure they know where to go for help if they want to talk to you about the issue

Where to go for support and advice

BBC Own it – Share this video with your child to make this issue more relatable and easy to understand.

Online pressures at secondary school

Online Identity Series

Instagram toolkit

Recommended resources

Help for parents and carers

Guides & Resource centre

 

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CSO – Posting nudes and sexting

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Anti-Bullying Alliance guide – Cyberbullying and SEN/disability

CEOP – Report online grooming

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IWF – Preventing the availability of online sexual abuse content against children.

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