SEN kids victimised online

Children with special educational needs and disabilities speak out about cyber-bullying and concealing disability online

Guidance for teachers and professionals released today by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, part of leading children’s charity the National Children’s Bureau, provides a unique insight into the internet use of children with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) and reveals evidence of cyber-bullying and experiences of discriminatory  behaviour.

The findings – collected through qualitative focus groups with children and young people with disabilities, learning difficulties, mental health issues, emotional and/or behavioural difficulties – revealed that many young people with SEND had experienced cyber-bullying, had not been taught how to use the internet or stay safe online, were using the internet to create an anonymous persona to mask their disability, or were actively avoiding the internet. 

Participants revealed that the cyber-bullying they experienced was often an extension of the face-to-face bullying they were experiencing, and that it often went unchallenged:

“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.” “Real life follows you home… [you’re] not even safe in your bedroom.”

In addition, many young people said they were often not believed when they told someone about cyber-bullying, or experienced a lack of support and appropriate responses. Many felt that adults lacked the skills to deal with the situation and were often told that the best strategy to deal with cyber-bullying was to ‘avoid the internet’:

“I get bullied because of my disability. [I’m] told to put up with it. They don’t care. It’s like it’s my fault because I’m disabled.”  “I don’t think teachers know how to deal with it, what to say or how to deal with the situation.”

Further responses identified that many of the young people were consciously not using the internet. For some, this was because they were not given the practical or emotional support to get online; others revealed that they were afraid to do so for fear of cyber bullying or enhancing existing social pressures:

“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.”

Other young people reported that they had been actively discouraged from using the internet, which many attributed to adults own concerns about internet safety or the risk of potential bullying. Some young people felt this was because adults were ‘scared’ of the internet; or unsure how to advise on using it safely: “I use it a lot, but my Mum doesn’t know.”

The young people also talked about being upset by the frequent and casual use of discriminatory language and jokes about disability online. This directly affected how they felt about themselves as people with disabilities. In addition, many had personally experienced discriminatory language.

One of the mosttalked about experiences was using the often anonymous nature of the internet to hide a disability online, deliberately concealing this aspect of their identity:

“No one knows I’m disabled.”  “You use avatars and stuff.”  “No one knows who you are online.”

Education, or a lack of, was shown to play a huge part in the young people’s internet use, and their ability to deal with difficult situations which might arise from being online; with many reporting a total absence of support to learn about cyber-bullying or internet safety. This meant they were unaware of how to stay safe online, what to do about cyber-bullying, or how to understand when bullying behaviour was occurring:

“I know there’s things that have happened to me online, and when I’ve spoken to teachers about it, they said it was cyber bullying, but I didn’t realise.”

Martha Evans, senior programme lead – SEND & inclusion at the Anti-Bullying Alliance said: “Our findings show that cyber-bullying, and the frequent use of disablist language, are serious issues facing children and young people with SEND when using the internet; but that teachers and parents are not always equipped to provide the advice and support that young people need. Research shows that children and young people with SEND are more likely than those who don’t have any SEND to experience bullying within schools, and to see this may also be the case in cyber-space is extremely worrying. We believe that bullying in any form is wrong and should not be tolerated, and that any environment that encourages bullying, or shows indifference to prejudice and discrimination is unacceptable.

‘We would like to see more in-depth research into the issue, but ultimately the solution lies in better education: not only in the classroom, via formats which ensure the information is accessible by all children and young people, but also better training for teachers and support for parents. It is imperative that we take a collaborative approach to tackling cyber-bullying, and support every child how to use the internet safely and responsibly; helping young people to develop into responsible, self-managing digital citizens who can look after themselves and others to ensure a future that is safe, fun and connected.”

Will Gardner, chief executive officer at Childnet International, said: “Cyber-bullying, like all forms of bullying, can be very damaging and must be taken seriously. Learning how to use the internet safely and responsibly, and knowing who to turn to should things go wrong are key skills which we must teach all children. These findings illustrate the importance of ensuring that children and young people with SEND can enjoy the benefits of technology, by teaching and supporting them and those who work to help them; schools, parents and carers. We must look at both preventing cyber-bullying and responding to it when it does occur. We hope this guidance will be a step towards achieving this, and will provide a useful tool towards enabling all children to get the most out of what technology has to offer.”

To read more about the ABA SEND Programme of work go to:

To download the free guidance for teachers and professionals go to

For a more in-depth look at the young people’s responses go to:

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