Increased digital participation has provided many positives for young people with disabilities, but greater potential risks can also be found lurking online for those who live with a disability, according to latest research from the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.

The potential risks – such as exposure to inappropriate content, excessive use, and image-based abuse – are increased for these young people, according to Greg Gebhart, who is eSafety’s senior education trainer and one of Australia’s leading experts on cybersafety.

These negative experiences can reinforce or even heighten vulnerabilities impacting on their wellbeing, says Gebhart, who will be sharing the latest findings on the impact of the internet on youth wellbeing at Generation Next’s Mental Health and Wellbeing of Young People seminar in Melbourne on Friday 30 August.

According to eSafety research, 18% of the population live with a disability, and this group experiences bullying at twice the rate of the general population.

“We conduct a national survey of education experiences of students with disability every year. Last year 56 per cent of students had experienced bullying in the previous 12 months,” Gebhart told attendees at a previous seminar.

Online gaming is also popular among youth with a disability (72% vs 63% for youth without a disability) according to the research, and they are also more likely to have talked to someone they didn’t know online.

Educators can play an important role in addressing these problems, according to Gebhart. If bullying and online safety are addressed only occasionally rather than embedded into the life of the school, he says, it becomes more likely that vulnerable children will miss out.

“Adults need to demonstrate engagement with online issues and maintain an ongoing dialogue with young people that is age appropriate and responsive if they are to be trusted to help,” he says. “One-off sessions are not sufficient. Be an ally to the young people you work with and take time to understand the motivation and the issues.”

Gebhart also called on educators to ensure that their online spaces are inclusive and reflect the diversity of the community through the creation of policies and supported online spaces.

The Office of the eSafety Commissioner was established in 2015 to help Australians have safer experiences online, and it also develops resources to help assist those working with young people, including delivering presentations and running a Teacher Professional Development Program.

With this in mind, Gebhart offers the following tips for educators.

Online safety education should:

  • See young people as digitally capable
  • Use non-judgemental dialogue to discuss online issues
  • Don’t try to scare young people or give them blanket rules
  • Focus on the development of problem-solving skills
  • Make inclusion a whole school priority