Wellbeing and the web: Supporting vulnerable people online

 Irene Mackintosh, Mhor Collective
 28th Feb 2019

Maximising benefits and minimising risk or: ‘The invisible thin line between the individual’s rights and our duty to protect’ 

Towards the end of January, practitioners from across the third sector came together as part of SCVO’s One Digital agenda to focus on the issue of supporting vulnerable people in accessing the benefits and opportunities of the internet, and to discuss how, as a sector, we might overcome particular challenges related to this, especially in light of research evidencing a close connection between social exclusion and digital exclusion. It’s a theme we’re hearing regularly as we roll out digital champion training – with staff and volunteers highlighting issues related to personal autonomy and empowerment as well as how best to manage risk and keep individuals safe in a complex digital environment. 

In the context of our meeting, defining ‘vulnerability’ presented an initial challenge –the group opened discussion to a wider definition, highlighted in legislation surrounding the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (2007), noting that there are many ways in which an individual may become vulnerable- and that the definition required a flexible approach. ‘An important principle underpinning PVG is that a person is a protected adult by virtue of a service they receive, not because of a particular condition or disability, and that they are a protected adult only while receiving that service. In that sense, all of us may at one time or another be a protected adult’. (PVG, 2007). Those attending were from a range of third sector organisations and individuals were able to give a range of interpretations of vulnerability, reflecting the nuance and complexity of this area of our work. 

Organisational attitude 

One of the key issues discussed was the organisational ‘attitude’ to digital inclusion and the impact this had on individual practitioners. One participant noted that ‘Staff often don’t do digital because of their own anxieties that they’ll get in trouble, or that the person they support will.’ 

Very few organisations in attendance had policies in place specifically related to digital to provide inclusive and robust safeguarding for staff and individuals using services. One participant noted that ‘It seems silly that when the internet can make such a difference to people’s lives that they are being isolated from it by the organisations that support them because they don’t have the policies or procedures in place, or even the access.’ 

Furthermore, individual participants were concerned themselves about the risks in terms of data privacy, aware that individuals with limited digital skills are entering a new space. A colleague highlighted this concern about individual risk: ‘I feel I contribute to people’s vulnerability: I move people from their old, paper based system, to helping them online where they may be at more risk.’ Historically, personal data was tangible, often held safely by individuals in their own homes. The digitisation of personal information, whilst enabling often useful systems, also contributes to personal risk, especially when individuals struggle with essential digital skills. This was compounded with an expressed concern about staff’s own digital capability in terms of cyber security. 

Digital skills versus digital understanding 

It was also acknowledged that digital understanding- as opposed to simply digital skill- is particularly important when supporting vulnerable adults. An individual may have the practical skills to get online; to open social media accounts; to download and share images- but not necessarily the understanding of individual and personal boundaries, of what constitutes ‘appropriate’ language, or appropriate images to share. This lack of digital understanding may lead to online bullying, harassment, or individuals becoming victims of fraud, targeted abuse or catfishing. 

Indeed, examples were given of individuals with vulnerabilities becoming part of the criminal justice system as a result of their online activity. People who are vulnerable may be lead more easily than others by so-called ‘wolf hunters’ and sting organisations designed to pull offenders in. 

Best Practice 

We were lucky enough to have some excellent speakers on the day, highlighting great practice in the sector, including Willie Mason from Stop it Now! Scotland who shared some excellent easy-read resources including 'What am I looking at online?' and 'I've made a new friend online. But I'm worried. What should I do?' These documents could be used in many different organisations and their highly visual style and use of plain English make them particularly accessible. It was also fantastic to hear from David Dougan of Common Knowledge UK. Common Knowledge UK offers innovative learning, peer education, drama and safe social networking for people with learning difficulties- and is a veritable mine of excellent inclusive resources, including a Vimeo channel with short films on topics such as cyber bullying, how to manage internet cookies, and pitfall and possibilities of social networks. Common Knowledge UK also offers a safe and secure social networking space for adults with learning difficulties. It’s monitored and staff take great care to make this one of the safest internet places for adults with learning difficulties. 

Moving forward: a wee call to action! 

There were several suggestions as to how we might, as individual organisations and as a sector, move forward in our support for individuals. 

  1. Be person centred: Embrace the unique nature of those who use our services –each person is an individual with different needs, aspirations and capabilities- and we should encourage variable paths of support. As one participant noted, we cannot provide a ‘one size fits all’ when addressing digital exclusion, instead ‘You have to have an open mind, an open approach to everyone, to work out what will help that person.’ 
  1. Bring on the policies! Policies, procedures and open discussions related to digital will help staff to do their jobs and improve the services they offer.  
  1. Training required: Staff would also welcome training and support to strengthen their own digital understanding, especially in issues such as data privacy and cyber security. 
  1. Digital isn’t the be-all and end-all: Sometimes what we need isn’t a digital solution to a digital problem but rather a human, nuanced approach applied to an individual’s needs, taking in digital as part of this. 
  1. We’re the right people to help: Staff in the third sector have the skills to help support individuals with social skills and to help them overcome challenges- and can transfer this expertise to the digital space. 
  1. Sharing is caring: We need to share best practice and learn from colleagues about practical, real world solutions. 

Further reading 

Data for Public Benefit, Carnegie Trust UK 

The role of digital exclusion in social exclusion, Carnegie Trust UK 

Checking your digital footprint and taking control of your personal data, Guardian UK 

An introduction to cyber security, Future Learn 

Applying a critical approach to investigate barriers to digital inclusion and online social networking among young people with disabilities : Newman, Browne-Yung, Raghevendra and Wood (2016).