Vulnerable children most at risk from online harm, report finds

Britain’s two million most vulnerable children are seven times more likely to come to harm online than their peers, according to a study by Internet Matters, the online safety body.

Yet those children are also more likely to rely on the internet for support and entertainment, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, the not-for-profit group said.

It called for parents, schools and technology firms to find ways of protecting children, without removing their access.

The report, Refuge and Risk, by the consultancy Youthworks in partnership with Internet Matters, surveyed 14,449 children aged 11 to 17, of whom 6,500 self-identified as having one or more vulnerabilities, such as being in care, being autistic or having an eating disorder.

The study found that 40% of children with three or more vulnerabilities had experienced cyberbullying or racist or homophobic comments, compared with 11% of their peers.

They were also three times more likely to be the victim of a scam or come across harmful content involving topics such as pro-anorexia, self-harm or suicide.

Yet 86% of autistic teenagers in the survey and 82% with learning difficulties said that the internet opened up lots of possibilities for them, compared with 62% of other children.

Amber Aldridge, 15, is autistic and has high anxiety. Her mother Sarah, the co-director of the social enterprise Autism Apprentice, said that interacting using a screen helped her daughter feel safer and that her experience of school had improved during the pandemic.

“In everyday life, Amber finds making friends a challenge but through playing games such as Minecraft on her Xbox she has been able to connect with others and have those important social interactions, helping her develop friendships and the social skills that you need in everyday life,” she said.

Not having to travel to school had reduced her daughter’s anxiety, Aldridge said.

“During the pandemic, technology has been really great for Amber. Particularly with FaceTime, she can still feel connected to her grandparents. She’s actually doing a lot better through online learning as she’s able to focus a lot more.”

Claire Levens, policy director at Internet Matters, said: “The impulse of parents to protect [their children] by stopping them going online is not the answer, as this may lead to a double-whammy for the child, taking away an important part of their personal and social life that they deeply rely on.

“Instead, we need to create a culture where vulnerable young people are routinely asked about their online lives so they can carry on engaging, but safely, especially at a time when we know children are using the internet and gaming more to stay in contact with their friends throughout the pandemic and home schooling.”

Levens said online safety education did not work for vulnerable children: “We want to work together with parents, carers, educational professionals and tech companies to ensure training and resources are brought up to date.”

Adrienne Katz, director of Youthworks, who co-authored the report with Aiman El Asam at Kingston University, said vulnerable children depend on the internet, and escape into it, and are “deeply hurt” when things go wrong.

“It is of paramount importance that we look at meaningful ways we can make it a much safer experience for them,” she said.

“We should urgently review training and resources surrounding vulnerable young people and move away f

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