Staying cyber-safe


Issues children with SEN face when it comes to getting online

Existing quantitative research suggests that people with disabilities are amongst the groups which are least likely to use the internet; a huge 20 per cent less likely than their peers. In March 2014, the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) embarked on the first ever consultation to discover what children and young people with SEN and/or disabilities really think about cyber-bullying and using the internet. What emerged was that these children and young people are not using the internet as much as those who don’t have any SEN, due in part to cyber-bullying and experiences of discriminatory behaviour. This article discusses our survey’s findings and their implications.

What is Cyber-bullying?

It is important that, when thinking about cyber-bullying, we have a full understanding of the definition of bullying. The ABA defines bullying as:

“the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face-to-face or through cyberspace.” 

Cyber-bullying is bullying via electronic means. This could be via a smart phone, computer, laptop, tablet or online gaming platform. It can take place on a range of online or mobile services, such as text, email, social networking sites, video-hosting sites, messenger, photo sharing services, chat, webcams, visual learning environments and online games.

What are young people with SEN’s experiences of cyber-bullying?

Of the young people we spoke to, where young people with SEN and disabilities did use the internet, many had first-hand experience of an often discriminatory and hostile environment, with some participants having personally experienced cyber-bullying. In many instances, this was an extension of the face-to-face bullying they already experienced at school, and meant that rather than escaping the issue at home, it became a twenty-four hour problem which infiltrated even these “safe” environments. In addition, many young people said they were often not believed when they told someone about instances of cyber-bullying, or had experienced a lack of support and appropriate responses from adults, who often suggested “avoiding the internet” as the best strategy for combating the problem.

One in five children at school in the UK has SEN. These children are already more likely than their peers to be excluded from school, and to be out of education, employment or training when they reach the age of 18. With the internet now such an integral part of all children’s learning and communication, and a vital tool in the workplace, it is concerning that these young people are in some instances being actively discouraged from using the internet, or choosing to deliberately avoid the internet for fear of potential cyber-bullying, putting them at yet another disadvantage to their peers.

One of the most talked about experiences was using the often anonymous nature of the internet to hide a disability online, deliberately concealing this aspect of their identity. A lack of education or total absence of support to learn about internet safety was also described.

What is different about cyber-bullying?

There are some features of cyber-bullying that are different to other forms of bullying.

24/7 bullying
Young people are always connected, which means that the target of the bullying can be reached 24/7, even when they are at home. Young people we spoke to talked of the bullying extending into all areas of their personal lives, through the portability of technology. This meant that bullying becomes inescapable, as these comments from students illustrate:

“You used to be able to go in to school, get your head down, and have different friends outside of school… You could separate it… Now you can’t.”

“It takes what’s happening in school to a whole other level.”

“Bullying is far more wide spread now it is online – it’s not just your time in school. It affects your social life. Your social life is online. How many people like your status or your picture. Social pressures are just made worse.”

Online popularity
Young people spoke in detail about cyber-bullying and social media. For young people who access social media, so much of their social lives are online. This can increase existing social pressures on young people and enhance exclusion and isolation, taking several different forms, for example:

  • people purposefully not liking a young person’s status update or photo they have posted, so they seem unpopular
  • exclusion from group chats
  • not being invited to group events.

A young person being bullied may not always know who is bullying them, which can be very distressing. The bullying content can be shared with a large audience very quickly, and can reappear again and again, which can make it harder to get closure.

On the positive side, evidence of cyber-bullying can be collected and retained – be it a text or a screenshot from a social networking profile. It can be enormously empowering to a child, when they want to talk about a bullying incident, to have something they can show when they tell a friend, a parent or carer, a teacher or school staff member, an internet service provider or even the police.

Global identity
Bullying and harassment online often involves a large audience with a number of players. It’s rarely limited to interaction between two individuals.

“A lot of people, like I’ve seen them on Facebook, and they’ll take a photo of someone without them knowing it, and there’ll be hundreds of comments on it, just like taking the mick out of them.”

How can schools tackle cyber-bullying?

Tackling cyber-bullying can be split into methods of prevention, reporting and response.


  • e-safety education, such as “think before you post”, is an important message that all schools should be delivering. It is important to encourage empathy in children and young people, asking them to put themselves in the shoes of the person receiving messages, and the need to respect friends’ and peers’ thoughts and feelings online
  • the whole-school community needs a shared understanding of what is meant by “cyber-bullying”, its potential impact, how it differs from other forms of bullying and why it is unacceptable
  • young people and their parents should also be made aware of pupils’ responsibilities in their use of ICT
  • schools must have a clear anti-bullying policy which includes how they will respond to issues of cyber-bullying of young people with SEND. Existing policies and practices should be updated to reflect cyber-bullying issues, and ensure that policies are “owned” and understood throughout the school community
  • information about cyber-bullying must be made more visible in schools, and this information must be in accessible formats, so it can be accessed and understood by all children and young people
  • the positive use of technology should be promoted. Safe and effective practice is key to preventing the misuse of technology. Schools should ensure that learning strategies and targets, as well as staff development programmes, support the innovative and engaging use of technologies
  • all children and young people should be taught how to use the internet and new technologies safely and responsibly. This is a key step to preventing cyber-bullying  and helping young people develop into responsible digital citizens who can look after themselves and their peers, and get the most out of technology
  • evaluating the impact of prevention activities. Regular reviews are vital to make sure that anti-bullying policies are working and are up to date. Consider conducting an annual survey of pupils’ experiences of bullying, including cyber-bullying, and a parent satisfaction survey. Publicise progress and activities to the whole-school community – keep cyber-bullying a live issue and celebrate your successes.


  • make reporting cyber-bullying easier and publicise existing reporting routes so pupils, parents and staff are clear on how and who to report to
  • provide real life examples when teaching, so that children can use these to spot when they or others are being bullied, or to understand when their own actions could be construed as bullying
  • Bullying and cyber-bullying should be built into everyday school conversations, so during personal tutor sessions, for example, staff should talk to young people about bullying and cyber-bullying so that the door is open for young people to talk about any issues they have.


  • support the person being bullied. Reassure the pupil that s/he has done the right thing by reporting the incident, refer to any existing pastoral support/procedures and inform parents. The young people we spoke with wanted staff members to work with them to agree a course of action and support, so the young person felt in control of this process and could see the link between reporting and action being taken
  • advise on next steps, such as saving the evidence. In our focus groups, young people requested further support to review how they currently use the internet and explore ways of improving their online safety – for example, being shown how to block people or improve privacy settings
  • take action to contain the incident when content has been circulated. Steps may include asking the person responsible to take the content down, reporting the content online yourself, considering disciplinary powers to confiscate devices that are being used to cyber-bully and contacting the police if the law has been broken
  • investigate incidents and keep a record of them. If necessary, take steps to identify the person displaying the bullying behaviour
  • work with the young person displaying the bullying behaviour. The young people who took part in this research felt that it was also important to support the young person who had bullied them, as those doing the bullying may have been bullied themselves, or may not understand how their behaviour and actions have affected others.

It is clear from our findings that more in-depth research is needed into these issues, but ultimately, the solution lies in better education – not only in the classroom, via formats which ensure the information is accessible for all children and young people – but also through better training for teachers and support for parents.

Further information

Martha Evans is Senior Programme Lead – SEND and Inclusion at the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA),a coalition of organisations and individuals hosted by the National Children’s Bureau. ABA are working with Contact a Family, Mencap, Achievement for All 3As and the Council for Disabled Children on a Department for Education funded programme of training and resources aimed at reducing the incidence and impact of bullying of children and young people with SEN and disabilities. Resources for this programme, including ABA’s report on Cyberbullying and SEND, can be found at:

Martha Evans
Author: Martha Evans

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  1. We started an online PC Minecraft server. Whitelisted for children with an ASD.
    Designed by and built for 9 my byear old aspie grandson.
    Monitored by family members and parents of the players.
    We also have a new web site whitelisted for the players to chat, and socialise.
    All very new only been operational for 2 weeks. We welcome players on the spectrum. We celebrate difference! Please…come join us


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