Sonia Livingstone

February 4th, 2019

Children with special educational needs and disabilities more likely to encounter harm online, say parents


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Sonia Livingstone

February 4th, 2019

Children with special educational needs and disabilities more likely to encounter harm online, say parents


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Sonia Livingstone and Dongmiao Zhang discuss the major findings from the latest Parenting for a Digital Future study, and outline why special educational needs and disabilities are important in shaping children’s digital lives and why. Sonia Livingstone is Professor of Social Psychology at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications and is the lead investigator of the Parenting for a Digital Future research project. Dongmiao Zhang is a Master in Public Administration candidate at LSE and a research assistant for the Parenting for a Digital Future project.

Internet safety research, policy and practice is making progress, but does every child benefit? The internet can be a fantastic tool, yet online safety remains a major concern for parents. In our recent survey findings on inequalities, we found that parents of children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEN) report that their children experience more online harms.

Three times as many parents of a SEN child (35% vs 11%) reported something online that bothered or upset their child in the past year:

Given the slogan of Safer Internet Day 2019,Together for a better internet,” we decided to delve deeper into the experiences of these families, to consider what should be done.[i]

First, we wanted to understand what problems these children might be facing. Parents of a child with SEN worry more overall, as shown in the chart below. Their greater fear of extremist recruitment (17% vs 8%) suggests an anxiety about their child’s isolation or gullibility.

Of all the worries we asked about, only 16% of parents with a SEN child said they worried about none of these things, compared with 34% of parents of a non-SEN child.

Actually, these parents are generally more worried about their child than parents of a non-SEN child. Parents of a SEN child are less confident about their child’s future, friendships, health, learning and safety.

So access to the internet adds to prior worries, compounding the burden on these parents.

Parents of children with a SEN child do more parental mediation, unsurprisingly given the greater risk their child encounters, and this in turn requires digital skills. Apart from making rules about screen time, parents of a SEN child do significantly more of all the activities shown below.

It seems unlikely that because parents of a SEN child do more mediation of their child’s internet access, their child encounters more harm. It is more likely that these parents are learning the hard way that internet use results in problems for their child, and they step up their activities. It’s notable that these include not only using parental controls or offering safety advice but also encouraging their child to explore and learn online and doing shared activities together online.

Given the greater risk and effort to manage SEN children’s internet access, is such access worth it? Why do parents of a SEN child take the risk? We asked parents whether they think their child’s uses of technology helps or hurts their life chances.

Generally, parents are most positive about technology for offering their child a chance to gain technological skills, to learn things useful for school and to prepare for work in the future. They are also fairly positive about the opportunities for pursuing hobbies and interests, and being creative and expressive.

However, parents of a SEN child think the internet is more helpful to their child in learning social or emotional skills (which parents of a non-SEN child have more doubts about), while parents of a non-SEN child think it more helpful for learning technology skills (which parents of a SEN child have more doubts about).

The potential social and emotional benefits of using the internet for children with SEN is something we have blogged about before, and it merits more investigation.

Our last point, however, is that these parents are doing a demanding job and they need more support. As shown in the graph below, both groups of parents feel they are doing a good job as a parent, and both know where to get the information they need.

But the overall life satisfaction for parents of a SEN child is lower compared to those of non-SEN child, and they feel less supported by friends and family.

For young people with SEN, the internet serves as an important tool to support their learning and social interaction. Alongside the benefits, the potential risks can be profound as a result of their vulnerability and social naivety. How can society provide better support to families living with special educational needs or disabilities in this increasingly digitalised society?

We’re writing more about these families’ digital hopes and fears in our forthcoming book, Parenting for a Digital Future. We also recognise some specific empowerment and safety initiatives and advice relevant to NGOs, those working with parents, and schools, along with some exciting innovations from tech researchers. Much of this emphasises the importance of opportunities to gain digital skills, which as we’ve seen here, accords with what parents, too, hope for their SEN children and digital technologies. Let’s hope for more initiatives and more progress by Safer Internet Day 2020.


[1] In our nationally representative survey of UK 2000+ parents of children aged 0-17, 14% said their child had some degree of learning difficulty (7% of all parents), physical impairment (4%), Autistic Spectrum Disorder (4%) or other special education need or disability.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Sonia Livingstone

Sonia Livingstone OBE is Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. Taking a comparative, critical and contextual approach, her research examines how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action. She has published twenty books on media audiences, media literacy and media regulation, with a particular focus on the opportunities and risks of digital media use in the everyday lives of children and young people. Her most recent book is The class: living and learning in the digital age (2016, with Julian Sefton-Green). Sonia has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe and other national and international organisations on children’s rights, risks and safety in the digital age. She was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 'for services to children and child internet safety.' Sonia Livingstone is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, the British Psychological Society, the Royal Society for the Arts and fellow and past President of the International Communication Association (ICA). She has been visiting professor at the Universities of Bergen, Copenhagen, Harvard, Illinois, Milan, Oslo, Paris II, Pennsylvania, and Stockholm, and is on the editorial board of several leading journals. She is on the Executive Board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, is a member of the Internet Watch Foundation’s Ethics Committee, is an Expert Advisor to the Council of Europe, and was recently Special Advisor to the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Communications, among other roles. Sonia has received many awards and honours, including honorary doctorates from the University of Montreal, Université Panthéon Assas, the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the University of the Basque Country, and the University of Copenhagen. She is currently leading the project Global Kids Online (with UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti and EU Kids Online), researching children’s understanding of digital privacy (funded by the Information Commissioner’s Office) and writing a book with Alicia Blum-Ross called ‘Parenting for a Digital Future (Oxford University Press), among other research, impact and writing projects. Sonia is chairing LSE’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission in 2017-2018, and participates in the European Commission-funded research networks, DigiLitEY and MakEY. She runs a blog called and contributes to the LSE’s Media Policy Project blog. Follow her on Twitter @Livingstone_S

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