Navigating the online world: young people with intellectual disability

A new research report from the eSafety Commissioner shows that the digital environment can be a great equaliser for young people with intellectual disability, but there are challenges in navigating potential online pitfalls.

“Young people with intellectual disability are using the full range of connected devices, including multiple social media services. Being online in this way is a game changer for this group, allowing easier social connections and communications. However, for these young people there can also be real struggles understanding and negotiating the social world. This can lead to communication difficulties and vulnerability in social interactions. They may find it difficult to read social cues, regulate their behaviour, understand boundaries or judge if someone is trustworthy,” says eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant.

“Because of these challenges, young people with intellectual disability may be at higher risk of online scams, cyberbullying, harassment or grooming by sexual predators. They may also need greater support to increase their awareness and ability to stay safe online and build resilience in the face of setbacks.”

Interviews highlighted a range of online safety issues in relation to young people with disability engaging online. Although these experiences are like those of other young people, the response strategies adopted by young people with intellectual disability are significantly different. Rather than reaching out and seeking support, young people with intellectual disability responded to negative online experiences by shutting down and avoiding the use of a particular platform or, in more extreme circumstances, avoiding digital devices and online interaction altogether.

Other findings include:

  • Parents and carers expressed a sense of inadequacy in terms of understanding and navigating digital technologies and the internet. They don’t want to deny their children the benefits of engaging online but feel a need to protect their children from perceived and actual online threats (by restricting their use of digital technologies and the internet).
  • Parents and carers are also often astounded, and sometimes alarmed, by what their children do online. Young people surprised adults with what they could do online or with digital devices.

Parents and carers interviewed as part of this research reported using a range of strategies to manage young people’s time online. These include having conversations and setting rules, and using technology such as filters or switching off Wi-Fi to either restrict time online or access to certain types of content.

“Providing more support and tailored advice, which takes into account young people’s preference for digital formats, will encourage young people with intellectual disability to continue to be active online as empowered, resilient, digital citizens, rather than lose access to the benefits that technology offers at the first hurdle. Improving the digital confidence of parents and carers is also a necessary step in building the digital resilience and support networks of young people with intellectual disability,” says Julie Inman Grant.

“Outlined in our Protecting voices at risk online statement, eSafety is developing a youth engagement strategy to hear directly from young people in an ongoing fashion about their online safety experiences and needs. This will ensure eSafety services and programs reflect youth voices,” says Ms Inman Grant.

In addition, eSafety’s continuing research, community consultation and collaboration with educators and frontline workers will build and improve the evidence base for new online safety strategies that incorporate the needs of specific groups including young people with intellectual disability.


About eSafety:

  • eSafety is the first government agency in the world dedicated exclusively to online safety.
  • We are committed to helping all Australians have safer experiences online by removing harmful content from the internet, as well as through a range of prevention, education and early intervention measures.
  • We are continually developing evidence-based resources and tools to enhance the online safety of Australians. This includes content specifically tailored for diverse groups such as people with disability, as well as parents, young people, women and seniors. We also provide educators with many resources and tools.

We have the power to compel online platforms to remove image-based abuse (intimate images or videos shared without consent), as well as cyberbullying that targets young people. We also provide support and advice for adult victims of cyber abuse.

For more information / arrange an interview, please contact: