Browsing safely online

Supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)

To help CYP with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) browse safely online, we’ve provided a range of practical things you can do to equip them to do it safely.

What’s on the page

What you need to know

The internet is a game-changer for all children and young people (CYP). With information at their fingertips, it allows them to broaden their ideas, discover new passions, and expand their knowledge.

While it can be a force for good, it can also be a place where children stumble upon inappropriate content that can harm their wellbeing.

Get advice on how browsing online can be different for CYP with SEND – and the benefits, risks, and challenges they face.

The Benefits

The internet removes barriers to the world

As websites become more accessible to cater for different disabilities, this allows young people to engage with the world on a level playing field. It gives them access to a huge library of information to contribute to wider conversations and to dive into the topics they are passionate about. The use of technology can empower CYP by helping to build confidence and self-esteem.

Allows them to discover interest and improve their skills

With the growth of YouTube and other sharing platforms as places to learn new things, the internet has become a vital tool for young people to discover new hobbies and interests, and improve their skills by learning from others through videos, blogs, and games.

Supports learning

Having access to the internet has become a necessity when it comes to supporting young people in their schoolwork, especially through Covid19. Whether it’s using a specific app to improve their skills or doing research online to support their homework, connecting online is no longer nice-to-have but the norm. Most academic literature relating to the benefits of using computers to boost learning for pupils with SEND agrees that technology is a powerful resource in supporting positive educational outcomes.

Supports development - cognitive,emotional, social, learning and motor skills

There are many great assistive technologies that can help support children’s development in the areas they find challenging, whether they support cognitive development, emotional and social learning or motor skills development. Technology can often underpin the lives of children with SEND so they may have access to technology at a very young age.

The Risks

Inappropriate content

As CYP spend longer online and become more active and independent, they will inevitably see something that may upset or confuse them. This can include sexual, violent or harmful content. We know that CYP with SEND are also more likely to see content that promotes self-harm and suicide.

27%  of CYP experiencing vulnerabilities view sites promoting self- harm compared to 17% of non-vulnerable peers, and 25% often view pro-anorexia sites in contrast to 17% of peers. [Source]

NSPCC say 56% of 11-16-year-olds have seen explicit material online and a third of children in the UK aged between 12-15 have seen sexist, racist, or discriminatory content online.

The combination of curiosity and algorithmic repetition can also lead CYP to see content in more and more places that may not be appropriate.

It’s important to note that while controls and filters can be applied to limit access to inappropriate websites they can’t block out everything. A click on an ad promising free things or a scroll on social media can expose CYP to adult content or hate speech.

Fake news and misinformation

More than half of 12-15 year-olds go to social media as their regular source of news. And while only a third believe that social media stories are truthful, it is estimated that half of the children asked admitted being worried about fake news.

As fake news stories mix truth and lies it can be hard for most people at times to work out facts from fiction. This can be especially difficult for children with additional learning needs.

Fake news poses a risk to young people because some can have real-world implications. More recently the so-called “Anti-vaxxers” movement and the recent fake Momo scare are both examples of different ways that fake news preys on our emotions and those of our children.

Impact of influencers online

It’s now the norm for young people to have favourite YouTubers that they regularly watch and aspire to be like. Some popular YouTubers talk about sensitive issues include transgender teen Jazz Jennings, and Mike Fox and Zoella who discuss, amongst other topics, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and depression.

While the ability to hear others talk openly on such topics can be extremely empowering for children who may have previously experienced rejection or isolation such messages can also be very confusing for some vulnerable viewers who may imitate behaviours or take on ideas that are not true or helpful for them on an individual level. This can make it complicated to get to the source of a young person’s issues and guide them to appropriate help.

Copying dangerous behaviour

Amongst the usually silly and banal content of compilation videos such as Try Not to Laugh there will usually be a video of someone pranking a friend or stranger. Some YouTubers have developed their YouTube persona around uploading videos of this nature. Aside from the risk of children getting hurt or into trouble by copying behaviours that they see enacted online, children can be confused as to the extent that the participants of the prank have consented to participate.

Impact on identity

Seeing constant streams of perfect bodies can put unrealistic expectations on young people to look a certain way which can lead to low ‘body esteem’.

This increased pressure to be perfect can push young people to hide who they are online and portray something they are not.

Equally, they may place more value in how others see them so getting a negative comment or not enough likes on a post can have a real negative impact on their self-esteem and mental health.

Online scams

The most common ways that children are targeted by scammers online is through social media, pop-ups and gaming. They may be lured into clicking on an ad or a post promising something too good to be true only to find that they have either downloaded malware onto their device or have to provide personal details to claim the gift.

These types of scams can be hard for children with SEND to recognise as they may look very real and seem plausible when in fact they are elaborate scams to steal personal information and money.

Chat rooms

Whilst most children stay socially connected with friends on the popular social media networks, children with SEND may develop deep interests in a particular subject and seek out ways to broaden their knowledge. This may involve the use of web-based chat rooms and whilst these can be positive environments, there is always a risk that children may be connecting with people they do not know.

It is important to be aware that:

  • Children with 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.
  • Children with communication difficulties are also more likely to experience contact risks.
  • They are more likely to spend time in chat rooms than their non-vulnerable peers which can facilitate direct communication and are known for explicit sexual talk, innuendos, and obscene language.
  • Experiencing contact risks is also associated with a greater risk of seeing harmful content and experiencing more aggressive behaviour from others online.

The Challenges

Based on our research, we know that children with vulnerabilities are three times more likely to be exposed to hate speech and content promoting self-harm and suicide than children without vulnerabilities.

Other research has also shown that parents of children with SEND also have a greater fear of extremist recruitment than parents of non-SEND children which may suggest anxiety about their children’s isolation and gullibility.

While there is this fear that a child may be more at risk because of their vulnerability, parents agree that the benefits outweigh the risks when it comes to what the online world can offer children with SEND.

 What things should you consider?

  • Prepare them for what they might see

While you may have turned on all the privacy settings and filters to create a bubble of protection around them, it’s equally important to talk to them about what they might come across beforehand.

This will help them be less frightened if they do see it and they’ll be able to use some coping strategies to limit the impact on their wellbeing. As children with SEND may be more sensitive, it’s important that conversation on the risks are balanced and don’t lead them to be put off going online.

  • Don’t just consider age limits but their level of maturity as well

It’s important to remember that although children may be old enough to use certain websites and apps, they may be exposed to things that they’re not emotionally ready to deal with.

  • Check-in regularly about what they do online

Have regular conversations about what they enjoy online and how they navigate their online world to spot if they need more support to tackle an issue. As they get older they may be less willing to share and more secretive about what they do but the trick is to continue to check-in and celebrate their successes online to allow them to feel comfortable to open up.

Practical steps to protect them

For CYP with SEND, the internet is a place where they can express and share their thoughts and beliefs, access support and reduce isolation. If they are already browsing and socialising online, using tools and strategies to help them get the best from their online interactions is key.

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.

Tools and advice to prevent the risk

Apple device tools

Screen time from iOS

The Screen Time function on Apple devices allows you to set time limits, content, and privacy restrictions by using a passcode. See the how-to guide to set it up.

Family Sharing on Apple devices

This feature on Apple devices allows you to share cloud storage and purchases. It lets you monitor your children’s screen time use, what websites they visit, and the apps they use. See the how-to guide to set it up.

Guided Access on Apple devices

iOS also has guided access which is a stand-alone way of controlling access to a single app for a set time, useful if you are sharing devices. You can find out more here.

Home Broadband and WiFi

In addition to using on-device apps and tools, you can also set filters on your home broadband, manage what your child sees on a range of gaming consoles and platforms, manage their accounts on laptops and PCs, and turn on safe search. Visit our Parental control how-to guides to get simple visual guides to make use of free safety settings.
You can also set filters on your child’s smartphone – you can manage filter website content and limit access to adult sites. View our iOS how-to guide for more information.

Android device tools

Google Family link

Google Family Link lets you supervise, control access remotely, and add filters and content restrictions to your child’s Android device. Importantly you can use an Android or iOS smartphone to monitor your child’s Android device. See the how-to guide to set it up.

Google Digital Wellbeing

It gives you access to a range of screen time data that lets you review the apps you use and the time spent on them. It also importantly includes the parental controls capability from the Google Family Link. Learn more about the feature.

Google Play Store

You can control the apps your child can download from the app store by using the settings in the actual PlayStore. See the how-to guide to set it up.

Things you can do

Stay engaged with your online and offline life

Ask your CYP what they get up to, anything that happens during the day, ask who their friends are. Talk about this openly in a relaxed environment.

Teach your CYP to be comfortable with saying ‘no’

Teach them that if someone wants to see or receive any nudes or any other sexually explicit videos or photos of themselves to say ‘no’.

Teach your CYP about their body boundaries

Educate them on the fact no one should see or touch their body parts, nor should they take pictures, and that secrets are not OK nor secret conversations.

Stay engaged in their digital life

Find out the kind of things your child likes to do online and agree on which websites and apps are the best for them to use.

Family agreement

You can use our digital family agreement to keep track of these rules and review them as their activities online changes and they require less monitoring.

Setting up parental controls

Make use of broadband parental controls available on most popular broadband services. They allow you to filter which websites you can access from any device connected to your WiFi. Be aware that filters block at a website level, they do not filter individual pieces of content within a website.

Use safety settings on apps

Manage their access by setting the right settings on the platforms they use. Use any safety filters available on the sites they use and block pop-ups to stop them seeing ads that may have inappropriate content. Visit our parental controls and privacy guides for more information.

Switch on safe search

Switch on Google SafeSearch and turn on YouTube Restricted Mode to make sure they see age-appropriate search results.

Teach them how to report

Ensure they know that they should report abusive or inappropriate content on the social platform and consider blocking anyone that may be saying hurtful things.

Conversations to have

Talk about inappropriate content

Make them aware that sometimes they may come across things that they’d prefer not to see, or that you would prefer they didn’t see.

Help them spot fake content

Talk to them about what is real and fake online – CBBC has videos and articles you can share with your child.

Discuss coping strategies

Make sure they know what to do when they see unexpected pop-ups, which may include sharing with you and closing them down. Tell them not to click on any unexpected pop-ups.

Dealing with Issues

If a CYP has seen inappropriate content that has affected them, here are some steps you can do (you will want to adapt it to fit with your knowledge of your CYP):

  • Discuss how they came across the content – were they simply curious and stumbled across it accidentally, or were they deliberately searching it out?
  • Reassure them that it is not a bad thing and show you understand their curiosity. Whilst the topics may be uncomfortable to talk about it’s important not to shy away from helping them understand what they have seen
  • If they search for it – try to find out why they felt the need to – help them understand that it may be better to come to you or another trusted adult if they have any specific questions
  • If the content was suggested by a friend and they can show them how to gently challenge their friends if they find their content offensive
  • Talk about how it made them feel to assess what emotional support they may need
  • If they can’t talk to you, there are organisations like Childline where they can talk to trained counsellors about what they may be feeling
  • Review settings and controls on the platforms they use to ensure that these are set to the right levels
  • If they are deeply affected by the content, consider advising them to take a break from going online, and concentrate on other activities that might make them happier
  • If you feel that the content may be affecting your child’s mental health and wellbeing, it’s best to go and see your GP. Depending on the seriousness of the comments, it might be advisable to file a police report. If you do take this step, make sure you keep some evidence that records what has happened and how it’s affected them

Recommended resources

Here are some more resources to support children and young people. Visit the Inclusive Digital Safety resource centre for more expert resources.

Help for parents and carers

Parental control how-to guides



Young minds – 0808 802 5544 (open 9.30 am – 4 pm)


Contact for families with disabled children – 0808 808 3555 (open 10 am – 5 pm)

Report Harmful Content – Helping everyone to report harmful content online

Children and young people

What is inappropriate content?

Childline – 0800 1111 (open 24 hours)

Samaritans – 08457 90 90 90 (open 24 hours)

Making the internet safer and more inclusive

Together with SWGfL we've created this hub to provide online safety advice and guidance to support parents & professionals working with children and young people experiencing vulnerabilities.

Let us know what you think of the hub. Take a short survey

Was this useful?
Tell us how we can improve it