Our most at risk believe they must endure the harms

Imagine being bullied, trolled or even sexually extorted online and not knowing this can be called out as abuse, let alone how you should respond to it.  

Or perhaps accepting that a certain level of abuse or exploitation just comes with the territory when you’re online.  

Seven years into our journey as the world’s first online safety regulator, we’ve built up a pretty good picture of how Australians of all ages experience different forms of online abuse.   

But new research released by eSafety shows just how much we still have to learn when it comes to understanding how these harms play out for some of the most targeted groups online. 

‘How bad should it be before I tell someone?’: Online Abuse Experiences of Adult Australians with Intellectual Disability is an in-depth qualitative study that reveals just how differently online abuse affects some members of our community.  

For those with an intellectual disability, the internet can be a valuable window to the world helping them find social connection, a sense of community, and even love.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with an intellectual disability spend more time online than the wider population. And, as we’ve seen time and time again, when online exposure goes up, so do the risks that something will go wrong. 

The research suggests that online abuse is widespread among people with an intellectual disability and includes bullying, trolling, doxing and sexual extortion. 

But one of the more concerning insights came from intellectual disability service providers who told us that their clients struggled to recognise online abuse while it was happening. And this inability to recognise the signs of abuse can leave them more vulnerable to various forms of exploitation and social engineering.  

So, what can we do more of – or do differently – to build the critical reasoning skills essential to support people with an intellectual disability to recognise and avoid these online risks?  

Recognising the difficulties in reaching and providing valuable online safety education to Australians with an intellectual disability is an important first step. 

The second is reaching out directly to those with an intellectual disability and service providers to co-design new online safety resources that are truly tailored to their specific needs.  

One thing we’ve learned over the past seven years is that our approach to online safety education should never be one size fits all.

Working collaboratively with communities is ultimately the best way to protect them, providing practical resources and advice that is meaningful to them.   

While unique research like this is opening our eyes to the online opportunities and challenges faced by people living with an intellectual disability today, it will be the power of our collective action that will make a positive and lasting difference tomorrow.  

Why did eSafety commission the research? 

We want to better understand the experiences of all Australians online, including those with an intellectual or cognitive disability. 

The reason for action is compelling. eSafety's research shows that people with a disability experience online hate speech at higher levels than the national average, and the abuse disproportionately targets their disability and physical appearance.  

This latest round of research builds on previous work by eSafety and is one of several steps we’re taking to understand what we can do to make online experiences safer for people living with an intellectual disability. Our goal is to deliver resources and programs that are accessible, relevant and empowering - in partnership with the people we hope to reach. 

We know this work won’t be easy. In many ways, eSafety needs to work smarter and harder to reach an incredibly diverse audience in new, more imaginative and more engaging ways. We cannot assume everyone knows how eSafety can help. We need to find them by forging strong partnerships across government, service providers and educators.  

What were some of the key findings? 

The research was conducted between May and December of 2021 and comprised interviews and focus groups with adults with intellectual disability, their carers and service providers. Key insights include: 

  1. Adults with intellectual disability didn't feel especially at risk online and didn't feel a need to seek information about online safety. However, when they were asked to describe their experiences online, online abuse appeared to be widespread, including online bullying, trolling, doxing and sexual extortion. Service providers also noted that their clients struggled to recognise online abuse while it was happening.  
  2. People with intellectual disability can unintentionally perpetrate lateral abuse. While people with intellectual disability didn't easily acknowledge this issue, service providers and carers saw it as a common aspect of being online and one that required their regular intervention and support.   
  3. Carers and service providers reflected on the perceived vulnerabilities that made online interactions riskier for people with intellectual disability. People with intellectual disability were thought to be vulnerable because of their varied ability to comprehend, critically assess or interpret online content or communications, including the tone of written communication, and because of their often-reduced self-regulated impulse control.  

What are the next steps? 

We’re excited to be entering into the next phase of this resource-development project: co-designing resources. These resources will be released in mid-2023 and they will be co-designed with adults with intellectual disability, support workers and disability service providers to ensure that they provide valuable guidance and tangible advice to be safe online and to identify online abuse.