Teenagers with special educational needs or disabilities are often made to feel unwelcome or pressured to disguise their disability while online, a new report finds.
The new guidance for teachers and professional issued by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), part of the National Children's Bureau, is the result of extensive research into the feelings and experiences of young disabled people on the internet.
To get a clear idea of the online landscape facing a wide range of children with special educational needs, the Anti-Bulling Alliance organised focus groups including children with physical disabilities, mental health issues, learning difficulties and emotional/behavioural difficulties.
The picture which emerged was troubling: participants reported being harassed or bullied online when their disabilities were made known, which caused many to hide the truth.
Even more disturbingly, cyber-bullying frequently proved to be an extension of the face-to-face bullying which disabled children encountered at school, with bullying classmates continuing to harass their victims online after school.
Another concern was the lack of support and guidance available to victims or potential victims of cyber-bullying.
One child told the focus group she didn't believe teachers were equipped to understand the problem or deal with it appropriately: "I'm told to put up with it... It's like it's my fault because I'm disabled."
Children also expressed distress over discriminatory language and anti-disabled jokes, both of which are rife online, thanks in part to the anonymity of the digital world.
As a result of these factors, as well as a lack of emotional and practical support for disabled children dealing with the internet, many of the youngsters confessed that they actively avoided going online.
Martha Evans, from the Anti-Bullying Alliance said: "Research shows that children and young people with SEND are more likely than those who don't have any SEND to experience bullying within schools, and to see this may also be the case in cyber-space is extremely worrying. We believe that bullying in any form is wrong and should not be tolerated, and that any environment that encourages bullying, or shows indifference to prejudice and discrimination is unacceptable.
"We would like to see more in-depth research into the issue, but ultimately the solution lies in better education: not only in the classroom, via formats which ensure the information is accessible by all children and young people, but also better training for teachers and support for parents."