Safeguarding podcast – Vulnerable Children in a Digital World

In this edition of the SafeToNet Foundation’s Safeguarding podcast, we interview award-winning author and researcher Adrienne Katz about her recent report focussing on the issues of Vulnerable Children in a Digital World.

We also revisit her 2012 book on Cyberbullying and e-Safety, as well as discussing how well prepared schools are to handle this 21st century problem.

Just in case you prefer to read rather than listen, here’s the text of the interview lightly edited for clarity.

Neil Fairbrother

Welcome to another edition of the SafeToNet Foundation’s safeguarding podcast where we focus on all things to do with safeguarding children in the digital context. Today’s topic is Vulnerable Children in a Digital World, and to help us guide us through this topic, my guest today is an award-winning author and researcher in bullying and cyberbullying, Adrienne Katz.

Thank you so much for coming in and spending time with us today. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about the award you got from the Ben Cohen Foundation last year and some more about your background.

Adrienne Katz
Thank you and I’m really glad to be here so we can share some of what we’ve learned recently about vulnerable children. I was totally surprised to win an award for inspirational individual of the year 2018 from the Ben Cohen Stand Up Foundation. I was quite stunned. I’ve spent 20 years, I think working in anti-bullying fields. I’ve run a charity, I’ve been a regional advisor for the Anti-Bullying Alliance. I’ve worked with Oxford University on data that be collected nationally from young people on bullying. I want to bring back the idea that you’ve got to focus right back on the child because obviously your mental health doesn’t get to be great if you’re being manipulated online or bullied.

The SafeToNet Foundation
Okay, thank you for that. In 2012 you published a book, I think it’s widely regarded as being a seminal publication called “Cyber-bullying and e-Safety”, which is still available to purchase online. And it’s a very interesting read from a 2019 perspective, seven years on. Some references have obviously aged, for example, one of the young people you interviewed in that study said that they couldn’t live without their Blackberry. Of course, Blackberry has been and gone. Has anything changed do you think in the last seven years since you published the book? I mean, anything of consequence changed from the child’s perspective?

Adrienne Katz
Yes. I think web-cams changed everything. That ability to stream images of yourself by phone or by web-cam has massively expanded since 2012. The book came out in 2012 so I did the research at least a year earlier. I think that smartphones really became ubiquitous from 2013 onwards and we see a massive change from then on in the behaviour of young people.

Blackberry was loved by kids for the same reason they love encrypted messaging apps [today], because Blackberry offered the security that people couldn’t read their messages, they adored it, and now they love apps. So in that sense, I don’t think that much has changed… did you want your parents to know everything you were saying to your friends as a teen?

I think they have a right to have some sort of privacy, but the worry about the encrypted messaging apps they use today is that where police need to get in, or people need to safeguard them, it’s very, very difficult. It’s making things much more complex.

I think the other message from then to now is that we could see that vulnerable children were emerging then as having different online experiences. They were cyberbullied more than other peers. They were subject to different kinds of harassment. And we noticed this even then.

I talked about vulnerable children at that stage and because the Cyber-Survey collects data every year we were able to look at trends growing or changing. The forward-thinking local authorities I was working with began to say, look, we don’t want to just ask questions about cyberbullying in the survey, we really want to ask about a range of other risks that we are seeing coming through our services.

Neil Fairbrother
The Cyber-Survey is a survey you’ve been running for a decade now?

Adrienne Katz
Yes. And because we work with different services in local authorities, they were seeing particular kinds of cases coming through to them involving sexting, for example, or different kinds of problems. We were invited to consider new questions.

When there was a real concern about online gambling, we asked about online gambling. We asked about meeting up someone you’ve only known online, only to find that it was mostly quite benign, but for some it was very dangerous.

But those questions broadened the survey. And then I partnered with a psychologist at Kingston University and he was able to introduce questions about wellbeing. So the survey kept the core, but it grew so that we could now measure these other issues.

And it’s from this knowledge base that we began to study vulnerable children in depth about three to four years ago, and we’ve had peer reviewed academic research published, which I think is a very important point because lots of us can give advice based on our knowledge and experience, but is it really good evidence and is it evidence that’s strong enough to base training?

I do a lot of training and it’s important to me that the training I deliver is evidence-based. So, I was really delighted to create a research partnership so we could look at these in more detail. And then that is what has led to the work on vulnerable children. It’s a whole program and it just led to this report that was launched now.

Neil Fairbrother
Do we have a succinct and agreed definition of what cyberbullying is?

Adrienne Katz
Cyberbullying always had its own definition. It is intentional. It’s usually a power imbalance just as face-to-face bullying is, and it’s frequently or usually repeated. And the reason I was put in “usually” is because for someone who has special needs or a particular emotional health issue, once is enough to really be an extremely harmful experience for them. If we say, well it always has to be repeated before it’s considered to be bullying, for that person, that is unhelpful.

There’s a debate by many people about whether the electronic tool itself enables and facilitates some bullying behaviour, which is different to face-to-face bullying. It’s different than a number of ways.

One is disinhibition. People are disinhibited when they can’t see you. There are no cues as to how upset you might be. They can’t see your face, your eyes, they can’t actually summon up the courage to do it face-to-face in front of you, so they are hiding behind a screen. And for some players, this disinhibits them to the point where they are capable of cruelty they would never be capable of it face-to-face.

Of course, people talk a lot about the fact that it can follow you 24/7 and intrude into your bedroom and your privacy and you’re never free from Internet harassment or bullying.

Another interesting aspect of it, is it’s written down. It’s an image or a text or a message or some kind of evidence that’s written. And to some children, this seems different from a spur of the moment thing that somebody just didn’t think through and just shout it out…

Neil Fairbrother
It requires more intent?

Adrienne Katz
Yes it needs more intent and it looks so deliberate and what is worse it stays there, and you can reread it painfully over and over again.

It’s true, you can relive what somebody shouted at you in your head, but sooner or later it fades, but this never fades. You can just call up your phone and look at it again and again and again, sort of re-inventing the hurt, re-stating the hurt. So I think those things are different from face-to-face bullying but the principle of why people do it and what they get out of it is just the same for the children.

Neil Fairbrother
Obviously children spend a large part of their life at school, and we attended the All Party Parliamentary Group on Bullying, the APPG on Bullying recently where you presented a some more research you’ve been doing, I think a two year program on the state or ability or readiness of schools to manage bullying and I think the school report card so to speak would have been, “could do better”. What did you find in that research?

Adrienne Katz
I found really sad to say work on anti-bullying had been put on the back burner from the position at had held prior to 2010,  schools were very preoccupied with other things they had to do. A lot of work has been done on the Prevent Program, on mental health and wellbeing programs and schools are obliged to do all sorts of things and some how they felt we’d been there, done that and they were kind of not focused on it.

For example, a large number of schools had not updated their anti-bullying policy in the past 12 months or 24 months. They haven’t linked their anti-bullying with online safety and safeguarding, it needs to interact properly.

Worst of all, the teachers in charge of pastoral care or anti-bullying coordinators had not had any training. People were telling me that they had just suddenly been appointed, [as a] surprise to them, before September somebody told them on the last day of term in the summer you are going to be “It” next term. They were talking about how long it took them to get their head around this really complex behaviour.

And the data from the young people was when they did report being bullied or that a friend was being bullied, the outcomes were poor. They very often got a very bad outcome, things were made worse or at best stayed the same.

I found that there was a lack of professionalism in that the teachers didn’t have the training or the pastoral leaders didn’t have the training they needed. They weren’t enough procedures and governance in place. As I said, policies had to be updated, but then what to do if flow charts needed to be fully prepared so that if someone got a disclosure, they knew exactly what to do.

I was shocked at how little understanding was left because years ago, we had trained so many schools and local authorities and I thought that people were working blind and it was more difficult for them. I’m not blaming the individuals trying to run anti-bullying in their schools, I felt they were not professionalized enough and that could really be developed.

And now if we look at the digital world, somebody’s bullied face-to-face in school is highly likely to also be bullied online. It’s statistically proven by lot of people including the Centre for Research into Cyberbullying in the US. So how prepared is the person getting the disclosure in school about bullying in school to understand that either they have to head it off from happening online, or look for it because maybe it is happening already online. They need to be on the digital scene and understand how these relationships play across offline and online environments, and they just weren’t understanding this.

Neil Fairbrother
It’s a huge amount of take on board if you’re told at the end of the summer term, that in the autumn term, you’re going to be that responsible role. And it’s not the individual teacher’s fault, as you say, if this has not been professionalized or systemized in the teacher training that is available.

Adrienne Katz
Some brilliant person suggested that newly qualified teachers should be attached to pastoral teams when they join a new school for the first teaching jobs. And if they had regular meetings and updates from the pastoral team that would form a part of their training. I thought that was a good suggestion.

Neil Fairbrother
A subset of all children at school are classed as “vulnerable children”. What do you mean by vulnerable children? Is there a definition of a vulnerable child?

Adrienne Katz
This is really interesting because the Children’s Commissioner has just produced another report on vulnerable children, in which they found 32 groups and said in their report, others still remain hidden.

In a lot of government documents, they talk about children being vulnerable due to parents being unable to fulfill their needs, due to neglect, or living with what they call the toxic trio, which is domestic violence, substance abuse, and drug abuse in the adult in the household.

There are children who are vulnerable because they themselves have a special need or a disability that makes something difficult for them and their daily life. And there are children who are vulnerable because of the home life that they experience.

We were able to study five vulnerable groups.

We looked at children in care or leaving care, and we included also in what we call our family social vulnerability,young carers. Young carers turned out to be very vulnerable online because as you can imagine, they spent lots of time at home because they can’t be out with their friends doing what teenagers maybe do, because they caring for a very sick person at home, or helping the siblings at home, so they go online to have a teenage experience.

We looked at children with special needs, which included learning difficulties and a whole range of special needs including the autistic spectrum.

We looked at people with physical disabilities, which includes chronic and long-standing illness because you can imagine if you’ve got a really longstanding illness, your access to the Internet is fantastic. It’s your lifeline really.

We also included in the physical disabilities vision loss.

We have another category which was communication difficulties. And into that we have people with speech and language difficulties, hearing loss.

There was a particular interest in young people with hearing impairment because they had emerged in the Cyber Survey as doing quite daring things. They were sending images quite frequently, self-generated [intimate] images.

They were meeting up with people they only met online, which may have been safe, they may have been meeting other deaf teens in a good group, but it wasn’t always the case. It was as if the Internet facilitated a normal teenage social life for them, with the risk taking that that implies.

The other communication difficulty was not having English as your first language because all the advice of staying safe is in English. The terms and conditions and on most of the sites, if you even read them, they are in English. Your parents then probably don’t speak such good English and may not be able to help you with this advice or navigate the English-speaking Internet.

So we included them because they came out as also having certain difficulties like cyber-scams. They fell prey to those kinds of things.

There is a hierarchy of risk in that some are more at risk than others. But the interesting thing is that they are at risk in different ways. They’re not all at risk in the same way because, and this was important because the analysis could predict these, it meant that if you are a front-line worker helping a young person, or caring for a young person, you could take extra care to support them in terms of that risk. You could really look for that and talk to them and prepare them better. Give them a more targeted support.

Neil Fairbrother
You mentioned people with hearing loss, hearing impairment, were more likely to be involved in activities such as sexting and that they are five times more likely to say that the Internet often left them with thoughts and feelings that were upsetting.

If we think back to the brief discussion we had about how schools were not that well prepared for cyberbullying, this makes that problem even worse because you’ve now got all these different subcategories that you need to be aware of. Now, maybe you feel at school or a teacher that’s specializing in education deaf people, that’s fine. But if you’re a generic, regular comprehensive school for example, with a whole mix of children some of whom may be deaf, then that further exacerbates the problem the teachers have, I would imagine.

Adrienne Katz
Well, it’s a bigger picture for the inclusion team to look at. It also is extraordinary how few good resources were out there. When I put out a call for resources for online safety, for example, for people with special needs or people with hearing or vision loss, you would expect a flood of materials to arrive, but they didn’t. And the few that came were really not inspirational at all.

I want these children to have equal access to the wonderful world of the Internet, but in a safe way. I don’t want to take anything away from their interaction online, I want them to be, as one boy put it “Having that window on the world.”

It’s also often an equalizer. For many people with various disabilities the Internet is an equalizer, so we should be enabling them to live fully in that digital world, but safely.

So essentially, I’m looking for better training for frontline people, who as you say, are faced with this complexity. Secondly, better resources. Where are they? You know, if anyone’s got them, we want to see them, we want to evaluate them. Do they actually work? What did the kids think?

We want to really take this forward to think about delivering online safety in a three-tier model. We are all currently delivering one model of online safety to all kids in that great big comprehensive you just described, regardless of their reading ability or their learning ability or their emotional maturity. We deliver one set of online safety and even that has not really been evaluated. So that can still continue at some universal level because most young people, let’s be clear, are doing fine online.

But then we need, as you go up the triangle, the next level, if you visualize a great big triangle with the universal, the base, the next level is the targeted; people you know are vulnerable.

And that’s a smaller group who had been perhaps bullied, who have one of the vulnerabilities that you know about in school. You tend to know that they’re in care. You know if they have a special need or if they’re very emotionally sensitive, they should get more targeted online safety advice.

And right at the top of the triangle at that very small little tip, all the people I call in need of intensive support. They are people who’ve perhaps self-harmed, or expressed the wish to make a suicide attempt, or something very extreme, they’ve had a very extreme experience online, or they’ve had sexual abuse of some kind.

Those people should be given intensive support, and I think that is doable with specialisms and what the frontline teacher just needs to know is that this case needs to be escalated. And when. I don’t expect them to be able to handle all of those cases themselves, the designated safeguarding lead of the school could take other steps for other people. The question is, could you identify those people?

Neil Fairbrother
So a more collaborative approach perhaps would be needed to deliver that tiered structure of support for victims of certainly the worst kind of abuse?

Adrienne Katz
Yes – and I’m not naive. I know how schools are struggling to get referrals picked up and what a shortage there is in the CAMS and other services. I’m well aware of that, but we could head off the much more serious cases if we pick them up earlier.

Neil Fairbrother
In your report you say universal online safety education is not enough, and we just dealt with that. You also say don’t blame social media and screen time limits aren’t effective. Now at one level you might assume that if the child is not online or not on social media ergo, they cannot be cyberbullied, therefore that must be a solution. So why are those two things not, not a solution?

Adrienne Katz
Okay, so your Mum bans you from social media, right? And you have a phone, but you’re not allowed to have an account on a social media network. So I choose to bully you behind your back. I might set up a website and invite friends to say horrible things about you and you’re allowed to browse, you’re just not allowed to go into your social network.

So you come across these pages because everyone’s texting each other and saying, oh look what we saying about Neil on this site. And you click through and you see it… you don’t need to be on a social network to actually be bullied.

You can also in five minutes online, if you’re looking at particularly dangerous content and harmful content, come to harm. So if I said you can only be on for 20 minutes, if you know where to look because your friends are telling you or people are sending you messages, you’ve looked once and so Google is presenting you now with lots and lots of temptations you don’t need to be on for six hours, although that might harm your health, it might be bad for you in other ways.

You could come to harm straight away because you go directly to a self-harm content page because you know it, or pro-anorexia, or many of those others that I’m more concerned about than I am about cyberbullying.

So I don’t think that’s safe because the parent who is a clock watcher is not a content watcher, you become someone policing the time, not your child’s confidante.

Neil Fairbrother
So it’s more about the, the quality of the time online rather than the amount of time?

Adrienne Katz
…or what they looking at or with whom they interact. Because if they’re interacting with people who are really harmful and dangerous, that is a more important factor than whether they’re on for 10 minutes, three times a day or two hours at a stretch.

On the other hand, if their use is problematic and they’re on for hours and hours at a time, five and six hours, some told us they were on for nine hours in the holidays, you have to really ask what this is displacing? Is it displacing a very unhappy home experience? Why aren’t they meeting their friends? Playing sport? Getting out there?

You have to really look at their whole life. You can’t judge their online risks without looking at their whole life. I know some programs and some games are addictive, but it’s displacing eating, it’s displacing sleeping, So the question is what is it displacing and could you then moderate the time in terms of their overall life and health?

Neil Fairbrother
Now that does lead us into another area which is very much of the moment, which is Contextual Safeguarding, which I mentioned before in other podcasts, the from Dr Carlene Firmin, and it all seems to make wonderful sense in the offline world, but it doesn’t touch the online world.

Adrienne Katz
Context Safeguarding’s a most wonderful concept. It’s really holistic and it makes so such sense, you can’t imagine it wasn’t there before. But I’m very keen to open up the debate if a digital component could be incorporated, how would that work and what needs to be in it.

There’s a wonderful UNICEF report on young people’s online safety by Daniel Cassville printer and he talks about [the fact that] it’s impossible to assess whether it’s the effect of the technology unless you take in the child’s whole life. You have to look at the whole life and technology after all is a tool and it may facilitate or enable certain things, but why is it that more unhappy children come to harm online than happy children?

Neil Fairbrother
We are running out of time again, perhaps you can take us to the conclusions of your findings in two minutes?

Adrienne Katz
We think risk assessment tools, really lack a digital component, the ones we’ve been able to look at, and they’re all focused on CSE, Child Sexual Exploitation, which obviously everyone should be looking for. But why not look for a wider range of risks? So we need better risk assessment tools.

We need to, as we’ve just said explore the concept of Contextual Safeguarding and whether that could be broadened to have a digital component.

When we talk about better data collection, many services for children that we visited and assessed did not collect data on the kinds of online cases they were seeing. They were anecdotally saying “We are seeing far more cases involving social media”, and I’d say “Yes, really what sorts of cases?”, but they have no evidence. Did they involve kids at this age or this age? They didn’t actually track that. Well this is a gap because you can’t train your staff then and you can’t evaluate whether you’re being effective. So better tracking, better data.

I think we talked already about the three tier delivery of online safety education – don’t deliver a yearly one size fits all because it doesn’t fit all.

I think we need educated and well-resourced parents and carers. At the moment parents are terrified because of media panic headlines all the time, a lot of which have been disproved by, say, the Oxford Internet Institute and other researchers. But do the parents read the research? Probably not, so they read the big black headlines. I think we need to feed parents good, safe advice.

I would like to see closer working between the experts and the industry to make the online experience of vulnerable children safer. And by that, I mean internet services and all “App” providers, social networks. I don’t want to just blame the social network giants. I think it’s lazy because kids are moving away from, say, Facebook anyway.

For all we know, somebody in the back bedroom somewhere is inventing the next App that all kids will flock to you and probably doesn’t have any moderators at all. So just blaming the giants who actually do have moderators is, is really not enough.

I would like to see prioritization from all areas of the internet industry to make content promoting disturbing and harmful material harder to find, and by that I mean it shouldn’t be possible that an eight year old should be seeing self-harm images, for example, or a 14 year old.

It’s really up to the industry as a whole to look at the content that’s floating around and being shared by teenagers and under and think we have a responsibility and a duty of care.

Neil Fairbrother
That may be a different set of algorithms for young people.

Adrienne Katz
Yes. Because once they’ve looked once, then it will be pumped at you until you think well, everyone’s looking at it and you get tempted back and back and then the harm maybe caused. So we need to look at that whole picture.

Neil Fairbrother
Adrienne, thank you. Your report is called “Vulnerable Children in a Digital World. And this is available from your website?

Adrienne Katz
Yes. It’s on Internet Matters website. It’s on YouthWorks website. It’s on You can find it on all of those.

Neil Fairbrother
Fantastic. Well, please do download. It is well worth the read. It’s beautifully produced with lot of fantastic content that’s very thought provoking indeed.


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