Jess McBeath, Online Safety Consultant for UKSIC and SWGfL, looks at how online life can expose vulnerable groups to a range of risks, highlighting the importance for professionals to quickly identify and manage them effectively.

I was asked recently to talk to voluntary sector professionals about online risks for vulnerable groups. Immediately I thought of older people at risk of fraud, scams and viruses. Sorted. Then I found out that 41% of over-75s have a social media profile. Hmm. Social media risks for young people are well versed (bullying, mental health, fake news etc). Could these risks also apply to older people? Of course they could. I realised I needed to delve a little deeper.

People at greater risk online

We are all vulnerable at certain times of our lives, depending on our circumstances and life events. When thinking of those more at risk than others, this could include a wide range of people e.g. those with physical disabilities or illnesses, care leavers, people with mental health difficulties, those with addictions, homeless people, abuse survivors, those in poverty, ex-offenders, ex-service personnel, minority groups, etc.

There may be a greater exposure to particular online risks for certain groups, e.g. a third of LGBT people experience online hate crime; and for a number of reasons (including lack of staff awareness and lack of education), young people with learning disabilities are more susceptible than others to online grooming and sexual exploitation.

Evolving technology = evolving risks

Despite the risks, we want to be online. We want all the benefits – the connections, the cost savings, the opportunities, the knowledge, the learning, the entertainment. For anyone with vulnerabilities or additional needs, the internet brings possibilities to combat isolation, join communities of interest, manage medical conditions, access self-help and overcome myriad barriers they may face in the physical world.  For homeless people, internet access via a smartphone can be a lifeline to the world – the key to socialising as well as accessing services.
Our relationship with technology is evolving exponentially. Six years ago, 27% of UK adults had a smartphone. Now it’s 71%.  Half of the online population now use social media as a news source. 1 in 5 relationships begin online. 31 million people play games online. A third of all gambling takes place online. The digital revolution promises to transform lives. And as our digital lives evolve, so the risks evolve. 

Take families experiencing domestic violence (for example), where abuse has claimed the online sphere, such as digital stalking and image-based abuse. Responding to these risks is no longer just about ensuring the Council doesn’t blurt out your new address. These days we share data with websites, apps, games and on social media in a way which is difficult to control. 

Even with social media privacy settings, images can be found shared to a wider audience. A photograph taken on a smartphone is location-stamped unless this function is disabled (but note that some apps only work if location is enabled for that app e.g. Snapchat filters).  And it’s not just personal data. We share a bit (or a lot) of ourselves online too – our thoughts, feelings and perspectives; our politics; our preferences; our histories; our relationships; our desires.  Some feel they can reveal their ‘true’ selves online. As our physical and online worlds converge, what is the impact on people such as those fleeing abuse, who may try to minimise their digital footprint?

Identifying risk

For those working with people who are more vulnerable to online risks, it can be difficult to know where to begin. A good starting point is identifying the nature and scale of the risk. 

Consider the person’s wants and needs, abilities, experiences and influences. They may have particular vulnerabilities that are amplified online. Talk to them about what they enjoy most about the internet, ask them how, where and when they go online, as well as what they do and who they are talking to. If you’re not sure how to raise the subject, you may find our conversation starters helpful.  

It’s useful to consider who their peers are online. Do other people in their physical or online environment provide support or pose a risk to them (e.g. over-sharing, abuse or neglect)? Would they know how to recognise and respond to an issue? The same applies to you as a professional, it’s important that you and your organisation know how to respond to an online safety incident.

Responding to risk

There are various steps you can take to help prevent and respond to these risks:

  • Support the person to keep themselves safe online e.g. can you use existing educational materials? Technical settings (blocking, filtering, passwords etc.) may be appropriate. Discuss the kinds of online activities which would be illegal, inappropriate, or break an app’s terms & conditions.  Are they informed about their online rights?  Where would they go for help if they needed it?
  • Look to your own and others’ roles: how can you best support the person to exploit the benefits of the internet whilst managing the risks? How much do you (or someone else in their environment) need to be a positive part of their online experience (within professional boundaries)?  You may find our resources for parents and carers useful.
  • Check your organisation has sufficient risk management policies and processes in place – look for resources specific to your organisation e.g. self-assessmentprofessional guides, toolkits and templates.

Keeping up to date

An important action is to ensure that you are aware of current and future risks. Look at your own and your organisation’s learning needs as well as sources of support.

If you think your organisation needs to undergo training, consider registering for one of our free Online Safety Live briefings which take place across the UK. It may also be worth identifying specialist organisations to follow on social media to keep up to date with the ever-changing online safety landscape.
If you work with vulnerable young people and need help to understand or respond to a specific online safety concern, the Professionals Online Safety Helpline is available to provide support to all members of the children’s workforce. 

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