Special Educational Needs & Disability (SEND): Being Safe Online!

by Anna Whiteley (Digital Consultant #TeamADL)

Social challenges

It’s not easy for anyone to understand ‘netiquette’ or the hidden rules of social media, but, for a young person with special educational needs and disability (SEND) it can be particularly challenging.

Imagine a child or young person who takes things literally, has cognitive difficulties, struggles with impulse control, social interaction and multiple meanings … how are they going to discern online media?  More importantly, what are we doing to keep them safe?

Children with social challenges will inevitably need even more guidance on social media use over a much longer period of time. As parents and educators, the goal is to help children and young people to be as independent as possible, equipping them with the tools and skills they will need to be successful in life, and appropriately using social media is one of these skills.

Benefits of social media

Social technology has the real impetus for prompting change and progress. It offers many opportunities for all children and young people, especially those marginalised or regarded as disadvantaged.  For children and young people that struggle with social situations, digital networks provide an opportunity to have a social life. Communicating with other children via online media can not only improve the socialisation skills of students and help with social anxiety, but can also support them with learning to use appropriate interactions and language whilst online.

Social media groups or forums offer safe spaces where young people can connect with others in the special needs community. Within these groups they can gain emotional support, chat and build friendships with others experiencing similar challenges. For  young people with SEND, studying for exams or heading into further or higher education, social networks can offer extra encouragement in their learning. They’re able to ask questions about something they find difficult and gather instant feedback on ideas, pictures, and projects. They also have the ability to job search and post portfolios or resumes, all whilst gaining confidence and building digital skills.

However, it can also be overwhelming to someone with SEND!  Information overload and expose their vulnerabilities.

Online conduct

In our increasingly digital world, online conduct is just as important as real life conduct. Vulnerable children and young people are at risk of exposing themselves to danger or hindering their future careers due to a lack of understanding about their digital footprint and how to use social sites appropriately and effectively. The nature of social media is fast paced, it’s sold as ‘in the moment’.  This often disguises the fact that once a post is out there, it’s there for good. Even if a post has been deleted, it may have already been shared, copied or screenshot. Peer pressure or teenage bravado often means that young people don’t think carefully before they share online.

In 2013, after being newly appointed as the UK’s first youth police and crime commissioner, young Paris Brown found herself a victim of a media storm over ill-advised, inappropriate tweets she posted between the ages of 14 and 16. At that age, she could not have known what her future had in store. These posts were nothing more than immature, silly, careless, teenage remarks, but these words cost her a career opportunity. After a media outcry, Paris resigned from her role. Sad, but inevitable that she sacrificed the opportunity of a lifetime because of her previous online actions.

Reflective questions:

  • How many candidates would be unemployable if embarrassing tweets and Facebook posts from their past were scrutinised?
  • How many vulnerable children and young people are providing easy ammunition against their future selves on a daily basis?

There are many lessons to be learnt from this. Paris Brown’s story shows a real need for more social media support and training so that the moment young people begin to use such sites they are doing so safely and respectfully, whilst building a positive social presence and taking advantage of the benefits of social media.

Paris herself said: “I hope this may stand as a learning experience for many other young people.”

Parental concerns & support

Parents of SEND children can lead the way when it comes to social media and online education. As the parent of a son with high functioning autism, I’ve found these networks invaluable for fact-finding and support.

At 10-years-old my son has just started to voyage into the digital world. In social situations he often struggles, but as a keen gamer, when he’s in his virtual world he’s a different child; confident, happy and in control. It’s something he’s passionate about and I use this to my advantage when educating him. To support his digital use, I’ve introduced clear and concise strategies with him and have already started planning a social media programme to mentor him through the next phase of his development.

A brave new online world …

Digital Technology is evolving.  Parents and educators alike need to ensure that there’s support and guidance in place for children with SEND when it comes to the digital world. SEND and social media guidance training should be readily available to these young people.

If you are interested to find out more, do get in touch.

About Anna Whiteley

As a member of #TeamADL, Anna, our Digital Consultant is supporting and providing guidance / training on “SEND:  Being Safe Online” for children, young people with SEND and their families, as well as educators. To find out more visit #TeamADL