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07th November 2013

World Wide Web – wonderful or worrying?

Recently I attended a safeguarding seminar in London primarily because it promised information about recruiting staff and volunteers and how to use value-based interviewing. Whilst this was really interesting and something I may blog about at a later date, the first half of the seminar concerned online safety for children and this had me really gripped.

I currently work in children’s services and, of course, the danger of internet use for kids is a hot topic. The one thing that was clear to me (and many of my peers that day) was that no matter how savvy you think you are with regard to online activity, you probably only know about half of what is really going on out there.

The news has been peppered with cases of cyber-bullying; we are regularly told of tragic cases where messages on social network sites have caused young people such distress that they have taken their own lives. We are all too aware of the predatory child sex offenders who use the medium to groom and engage children in abuse.

After the session, armed with a frightening new wisdom about the ways in which the internet can be manipulated, I got to thinking about the adolescents in our service that use Facebook, Twitter, Skype and so forth as a means of staying in touch with family and friends. We have an array of procedural safeguards to ensure that this does not present a risk to them, such as parental controls and careful monitoring and the nature of their learning disability means they need considerable support to access the web in any case. Our duty of care provides us with the reason to (often literally) oversee what the young person is doing online and who they are doing it with.

As our young people become older and we work towards their transition to the new world of adult services, we promote independence and the development of new relationships. The use of social networking helped one young person to get to know the staff and other service users of the placement he eventually moved to. Our staff made a point of encouraging his independent use of Skype to make friends and become familiar on his terms.

So, if we are utilising the web to help build relationships for service users, then we must be sure that we are protecting those vulnerable people from the darker elements of the internet. Sounds alarmist? Well maybe, but then consider the story of Nicky Reilly, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome and a learning disability, who converted to Islam after meeting extremists in an internet café. He went on to attempt to bomb a café wearing a homemade device and is now serving a prison sentence for attempted mass murder.

Of course this is an extreme case, but if you consider how many adults use the internet for the purpose of making new friends, dating and socialising these days, you need to consider the potential for some of these relationships to not be entirely genuine and wholesome. And where a person has limited experience or understanding, some of the contacts made online can seem plausible even where for others alarm bells might be ringing.

Online, you can be anyone you want to be – this was the message from the seminar. A video designed to increase awareness of this in children shows how easily they can be duped; this could also apply to some of the service users we support. The term ‘Mate Crime’ has been coined in recent times to define situations where people who purport to befriend a vulnerable person go on to commit abuses against them. The Association for Real Change (ARC) undertook research in 2010 into this phenomenon and describe situations where so-called ‘friends’ of vulnerable adults are stealing from them, assaulting them or coercing them into sexual or criminal behaviour. David Grundy, of ARC’s Calderdale project, says;

“People are prepared to put up with all sorts of crap to keep a relationship that may be the only one they have apart from with someone who's being paid to be with them."

This is harrowing reading for those of us who represent the ‘paid friends’; of course the draw of having mates on your own terms is powerful to people who rely so much on employed others for support.

ARC’s Rod Landman is networking with others around ‘Mate Crime’ via the website says; “Safety Net’s experience suggests that MOST bullying experienced by younger people with Learning Disabilities is now via social media.”

Sobering stuff.

The access we have to a vast supply of learning, information, networking and opportunity through the medium of the internet cannot be underestimated. Those of us who grew up without it can only marvel at the possibilities it offers to young adults today. For those whose disability restricts independent movement or social freedom, it can be the door to a world that would otherwise be off limits. We need to embrace this and enable those we support to gain the huge benefits that can be achieved through the use of the web and associated technology.

It is so important that we don’t allow our cautious approach to accessing the internet to restrict service users who can derive such pleasure and learn so much from it. It requires us to stay alert to the risks and pitfalls but also to find out more about the many ways we can use cyberspace to enable people with disabilities to have more freedom and fun. I learned a lot about the world of online gaming, Instagram, Twitter and so on that day in London. I learned also that I would need to stay awake to make sure I was up to date with this very fast-moving medium.

Happily, there are a number of sites to help us remain alert to the risks as we exploit the numerous benefits. Here are a few. – a website with great, accessible advice for people with learning disabilities to stay safe online. This site has some super information and film clips made by people with learning disability to demonstrate the risks whilst appreciating the positives. - some fun games and activities, not just for kids! – sign up to protect online abuse of vulnerable people.

Ginny Tyler – QCS Learning Disability Expert Contributor


Business Support Manager

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