A blog by Rod Landman, Project Lead, Association for Real Change
Get SMART is a user-led project for young people with learning disabilities at risk of radicalisation through social media.
In August 2017 I was astonished to discover that 75% of the young people being referred to the Channel element of the Prevent programme on ‘my patch’, in the South West, had learning disabilities or autism. Through a previous ARC project on mate crime, I had suspected that these youngsters were much more susceptible to online exploitation, but the scale of it surprised even me.
In a previous project of ours, ‘Safety Net’, which ran from 2009 – 2012, we gathered much anecdotal evidence that people with learning disabilities were experiencing a wide range of abuse perpetrated via social media, particularly financial and sexual exploitation. This was at a time when access to the Internet was rare if you had a learning disability (one survey suggested that only one in five had access to a computer). In the last few years things have changed – I can count the number of individuals who do not have a smart phone on the fingers of one hand. A good number of smart phone users do not realise that this means they are available online 24/7.
Our concerns grew following the historic case of Nicky Reilly, and the more recent examples of Damon Smith and Lloyd Gunton. Each of these young men came close to perpetrating terrorist acts. All were and are on the autistic spectrum. All were either groomed or grew their radical ideas online.
At the beginning of 2018 we became aware of a pot of funding from Google.org and ISD (Institute for Strategic Dialogue), which sought to grow grassroots responses to radicalisation and extremism. This was our chance and we were delighted to learn that we were one of just 22 successful applicants out of over 270 applications for funding, and so the Get SMART project was born.
The model we used was adapted from previous work we have completed on sexual exploitation. Teams of interested young people were recruited from Brook Green Centre for Learning in Plymouth and Petroc College in North Devon. Students discussed the issues from their perspectives, and invited in expert speakers from ISD, local Police Prevent leads and in-house safeguarding officers. The meetings led to some fascinating discussions, not just on social media and radicalisation, but on bullying, learning disability, and what it meant to them to have autism. Perhaps the most important insight was that every single student involved in the project preferred his or her life online to the ‘real’ world. One student commented, “Real life is terrible, filled with crime and death. I am not happy in real life. Real life is boring. I am invisible in real life. Online I can be seen. I can be whatever I want. There are no limits. I can achieve things. Online is a drug, it numbs the pain that is life.” This belief has highlighted a real gap with the previous generation, which is the very same one that is educating these young people today.
“Real life is terrible, filled with crime and death. I am not happy in real life. Real life is boring. I am invisible in real life. Online I can be seen. I can be whatever I want. There are no limits. I can achieve things. Online is a drug, it numbs the pain that is life.”
Following their research and discussion periods, the students then used their insights to develop learning materials, both for their peers and the professionals who support them. Pilot workshops were held at both sites, which proved hugely successful. One member of staff who attended a workshop said, “The staff have had a lot of training on [Prevent] . . . What was quite enlightening was to hear about it from the kids’ point of view and to hear about how important their online world is to them . . . I missed out on being the generation that’s grown up with computers.”
The project was externally evaluated by Manchester Metropolitan University, which found the project had been a huge success.
ARC is now delighted to be able to share all of the material produced through Get SMART, and our teaching plans, PowerPoints, resources and evaluation can all be downloaded, free of charge, from our website– feel free to download yours today.