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Improving Safeguards for Vulnerable Youth Online

Every child using the internet deserves a safe experience and easy access to online safety and protection resources. An estimated 240 million children worldwide (one in every ten children) live with disabilities, according to data released by UNICEF. Out of these, more than 120 million children are active online. Unfortunately, the existing digital safeguards, educational resources and reporting systems were not designed to appropriately support and protect those with disabilities.

This is particularly alarming because children with disabilities are three times more likely to experience sexual violence, harassment or abuse, making them one of the most vulnerable groups in the digital environment. This increased vulnerability is why addressing accessibility is a top priority for the INHOPE network. It is crucial for hotlines to have the necessary tools and policies in place to ensure children using their services receive adequate support. As we strive towards a safer internet for all, we must refocus our attention on those who are most susceptible to online abuse. Many current approaches to online child safety are not responsive enough to the needs of children with disabilities. To effectively address this critical gap and develop suitable approaches, we must first understand the reasons behind this increased vulnerability.

Understanding the Increased Vulnerability of Children with Disabilities

Vulnerability is subjective and influenced by a variety of different factors. Increased risks to certain types of violence or abuse will vary from child to child and will differ for different disabilities. However, when it comes to online abuse, certain common factors statistically increase the likelihood of victimisation, as identified in an intelligence briefing by WeProtect Global Alliance, DeafKids International, and the World Childhood Foundation.

Structural Inequalities

While many disabled children live independently, some rely on caregivers for assistance with intimate tasks such as bathing, dressing, or using the bathroom. This dependency creates an environment with an increased risk of abuse. Moreover, the trust established between the child and the caregiver can make it challenging to recognise when boundaries are crossed and vulnerabilities are exploited. These vulnerabilities are especially heightened for poor, disabled children. Poor families with disabled children living under pressure from the need to survive are more likely to consider sexually exploiting their children for financial gain by coercing them into posting or live-streaming intimate content online.

In addition to the increased risk of hands-on abuse, disabled children also face heightened risks in online environments. Isolation from non-disabled peers, difficulties fitting in, and limited participation in group activities can lead to feelings of loneliness and social disconnection. Consequently, disabled children may spend more time online, seeking social interaction in forums, online games, and on other platforms. The combination of heightened online activity and vulnerability stemming from loneliness and a desire for human connection can make these children targets for sexual exploitation, grooming, and sextortion by bad actors online.

Improving our Understanding

These increased vulnerabilities stem from a lack of societal and systemic support for the disabled community. Addressing factors like poverty and isolation at the root requires us to restructure our approaches on a deeper, systemic level and reframe societal understanding towards disabled people. However, working towards counteracting the heightened risks of abuse created through structural inequality can and must be addressed by actors in the child protection space.

Child safeguarding and protection professionals should receive specialised training on disability awareness and be briefed on different types of impairments and how to cater to diverse access and communication needs. Special attention must be given to addressing the protection needs of girls with disabilities, as they are particularly vulnerable to online abuse. Furthermore, all children should receive appropriate education on sexuality, consent, and body awareness.

Sexual Education & Inaccessibility

Currently, efforts are being made to improve sexual education and enhance children's digital literacy and risk assessment. Unfortunately, disabled children are still often left out of these discussions. Existing sexual education curriculums frequently neglect the existence of disabled children, perpetuating stigma and ignorance surrounding disability and sexuality. Some parents of disabled children mistakenly believe that providing sex education will encourage sexual behaviour, leading them to refrain from educating their children altogether. As a result, many disabled children lack the understanding of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and struggle to recognise signs of abuse, both online and offline. When a trusted adult is the perpetrator, it becomes even more challenging for children to discern what is appropriate.

This becomes especially concerning when we recognise that the current landscape of accessible resources for support and reporting abuse for disabled children is scarce. Safeguarding and protection efforts often fail to consider the specific needs of disabled children. Without inclusive approaches, a significant number of vulnerable children remain unprotected. Online safety resources and accessible digital education must become integral to the school curriculum – we cannot continue to let disabled children be left out of critical conversations on sexuality and consent.

Adapting our Approach

Available industry resources created by online platforms should be developed in collaboration with the disability community and disability organisations to ensure they meet the needs of children with different disabilities. To ensure the safety and well-being of these children, it is important to make hotline reporting forms easily accessible, enabling them to reach out independently. The same principle applies to adults with disabilities, who should also be able to report to hotlines without any barriers or obstacles. The INHOPE network is collaborating with partners to ensure hotline reporting forms are inclusive and user-friendly in line with the Web Accessibility Directive to cater to the needs of individuals with disabilities.

Effectively responding to the increased vulnerability of children with disabilities in online environments requires a drastic attitudinal change in the child protection community. Including the needs of children with disabilities in all safeguarding approaches cannot be an afterthought but must become an integral aspect in the development of measures, resources, awareness campaigns and reporting structures.

Improving Safeguards for Vulnerable Youth Online

Including the needs of children with disabilities in all safeguarding approaches cannot be an afterthought, but must become an integral aspect in the development of measures, resources, awareness campaigns and reporting structures.