The challenges of defining vulnerability
The terms vulnerable and vulnerability have several meanings and can sometimes be perceived in a negative way. Someone referred to as vulnerable can be defined as someone who is weak and without protection, resulting in them being easily hurt physically or emotionally (Collins Dictionary, 2023). Children and young people depending on relatives or guardians are also frequently considered a vulnerable demographic group. This vulnerability is often mentioned regarding children’s rights and development, such as in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989).
However, the concept of child vulnerability is yet to be clearly defined and analysed (OECD, 2019). The OECD defines child vulnerability as the outcome of the interaction of a range of individual and environmental factors that change over time. In 2020, the International Telecommunications Development (ITU)’s Guidelines for Parents and Educators on Child Online Protection explained how vulnerable children and young people online face the same challenges as they do offline. However, in the best-case scenario, they will receive the same advice as children who are not affected by particular vulnerabilities, although children from vulnerable backgrounds do require more specialised measures and interventions.
UNICEF’s 2017 State of the World Children report focused on children in a digital world and emphasised that there is still a considerable lack of research on some of the most marginalised communities and groups. The report identified the most vulnerable children to online harms as:
- Girls and children, and young people socially perceived as female.
- Children from poor households.
- Children in communities with a limited understanding of different forms of sexual abuse and exploitation of children.
- Children who are out of school.
- Children with disabilities.
- Children who suffer from depression or mental health problems.
- Children from marginalised groups.
Moreover, in 2021, The United Nations (UN) published its General Comment No. 25 on Children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, in consultation with 709 children from 28 countries. Its general principles reaffirmed principles of non-discrimination on all children as mentioned below (p. 2):
The Committee calls upon States parties to take proactive measures to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex, disability, socioeconomic background, ethnic or national origin, language or any other grounds, and discrimination against minority and indigenous children, asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children, children who are victims and survivors of trafficking or sexual exploitation, children in alternative care, children deprived of liberty and children in other vulnerable situations. Specific measures will be required to close the gender-related digital divide for girls and to ensure that particular attention is given to access, digital literacy, privacy, and online safety.
This growing awareness towards the concept of child vulnerability has led to many international organisations writing reports and conducting consultations with children and young people. 2021 was a big year for research in this field as shown by the General Comment No. 25 and the reports Our Europe, Our Rights, Our Future by the Council of Europe and the #DigitalDecade4Youth consultation carried out as part of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) project. All of these reports included consultations with children and young people regarding the risks, challenges, and opportunities in the digital sphere. The discussions reaffirm the whole range of vulnerable groups, and how sensitive and complex it is to discuss such issues.
As illustrated by General Comment No. 25, a wide range of vulnerabilities can (and should) be considered when trying to protect, empower, and respect children and young people in an inclusive manner. In line with this, one key aspect to recognise is the many (potential) overlaps between groups in practice. It is also necessary to understand vulnerabilities as intersectional issues, especially in providing support and solutions. Intersectionality was first used in 1989 by American critical legal race scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, describing how Black women faced multiple discrimination rooted in racism and sexism. She defines intersectionality as “a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and create obstacles that often are not understood among conventional ways of thinking”.
A further definition of intersectionality is as follows:
[Intersectionality refers to] the interaction between gender, race, and other categories of social difference in individual lives, social practices, institutional arrangements, and cultural ideologies and the outcomes of these interactions in terms of power. (BRACED.org, April 2019, p. 2)
This definition clearly emphasises the fact that one-size-fits-all solutions rarely work in practice. For example, children from minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to live in poverty and hence face more risks and challenges online than other groups since the bases of vulnerability intersect, and so on.
Mapping Safer Internet Centre initiatives
Earlier this year, in order to start pinpointing existing provision for vulnerable minors, and highlight areas for further development, an initial mapping of Safer Internet Centre (SIC) initiatives targeting vulnerable children and young people was conducted. The survey aimed to collect more information on how SICs are addressing the needs of specific target groups in the digital sphere. Furthermore, an Insafe network Training meeting in April 2023 provided an opportunity for Safer Internet Centre representatives to meet and further discuss concepts relating to child vulnerability, as well as exploring common ground and opportunities for closer working between awareness raising, helpline, and youth participation strands.
The mapping exercise identified the tremendous work that is already been carried out by European Safer Internet Centres in developing varied initiatives addressing children and young people in vulnerable situations, such as workshops, online videos, youth centre platforms, and gaming groups, to name just a few. A few such example follow:
The Belgian Safer Internet Centre has significantly invested in targeting children in disadvantaged settings in recent years. Among other initiatives, the SIC has developed training for parents living in lower socio-economic status. The training discusses “peer-to-peer” with other parents on how they manage the online lives of their children. Secondly, the Jungle Web game was created for parents and their children living in poverty, specifically focusing on online safety issues.
The Czech Safer Internet Centre hosts seminars with Romani children in schools and in children’s homes. The seminars target all members of the institutions from the youngest children (in the first and second grades of elementary schools) and older children, to teachers and educators. The topics discussed focus on risky behaviour on the internet and today’s challenges in the digital world. Simultaneously, several awareness-raising and educational events are conducted in regions where there are large Romani communities (often in structurally impaired areas, also). Additionally, schools and children’s homes with a large community of Romani children and young people have significant educational programmes specifically targeted at this population, supported by the Czech Safer Internet Centre alongside other NGOs.
In collaboration with Swink (an organisation helping to increase digital accessibility), the Dutch Safer Internet Centre has recently updated its Helpwanted helpline website to become more inclusive and digitally accessible. It includes content addressing issues for LGBTQIA+ children, children from minority ethnic backgrounds, children with disabilities, and children with religious and gender diversity. The content is written in an easy-to-read format and is gender-neutral. While only available in Dutch for now, translations are planned for the near future. Thanks to the input of Swink colleagues with autism, the website better connects with this target group and people with functional disabilities more generally.
The Estonian Safer Internet Centre created a self-testing online event for students with special educational needs (SEND). The event targeted students aged 11 to 16 (fourth to ninth grades) and took place in Estonian and Russian. In collaboration with the Estonian Ministry of Defence and participating schools, the test enabled students to demonstrate knowledge of digital safety behaviour, technical knowledge and competences, as well as to solve various cases. Taking part in the survey allowed students to understand how to assess their skills and competence, which in turn helps them to better solve challenging problems. Recommendations for schools were then drawn up based on the test’s results.
The Greek Safer Internet Centre has created an informational video about excessive internet use specifically for users with hearing impairments. In collaboration with the Hellenic Institute of Sign Language (Bridges of Communication), the video targets children and young people aged 10 to 25+. Important information about the risks and consequences of spending too much time online is discussed in the video, and subtitles are provided. The video tackles topics such as the potential negative effects of excessive internet use on mental health, social life, and academic performance. It also encourages viewers to practice healthy digital habits, such as setting limits on screen time and taking breaks. One of the key challenges was to ensure the video was accessible, understandable, and relevant to the hearing-impaired audience, and it has been met with a very positive response.
The Maltese Safer Internet Centre has organised sessions with children with both physical and mental disabilities in group and one-to-one settings. The team collaborated with Agenzija Sapport, a national agency focusing on providing professional and innovative services to improve the quality of life of persons with disabilities. The main challenge of this initiative was to support children in overcoming their naivety about dangerous people online. However, their openness towards using and experimenting with technology allows them to express themselves without having to disclose their disability. The team gave the young people advice on ways to be safe and showed them, in real-time, certain things to avoid. The sessions have been a success, and there are plans to further develop them.
The Swedish Safer Internet Centre, in collaboration with three other public organisations and fifteen NGOs, organised and hosted three webinars in Swedish with the aim of preventing racism and LGBTQIA-phobia. The webinars, delivered in April 2023, focused on education, awareness raising and collaboration with youth as successful methods in preventing the normalisation of racism. Strategies to review the success of this initiative are ongoing.
The above examples provide just a snapshot of some of the existing initiatives throughout Europe, and many more are in development. This ongoing work also complements existing Better Internet for Kids (BIK) good practice guides “Children and young people with disabilities in an online world” published in March 2021, which addresses specific benefits, challenges and aspects of online safety with regards to children and young people with disabilities, and “Classifying and responding to online risk to children” published in February 2023, which explains in detail the different types of risks children face online (based on the 4Cs model of online risks: content, contact, conduct and contract).
Readers are encouraged to make contact with their national Safer Internet Centre with any specific needs and to search the BIK resource gallery for resources in a range of languages, for a range of stakeholders, including those with specific or special needs.
We’ll continue to bring you further updates on this important area of focus as the new BIK+ strategy continues to roll out over the coming months and years.