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This page outlines 8 main findings and recommendations from the research ‘Munch, Poke, Ping’ which the Training and Development Agency (TDA) commissioned Stephen Carrick-Davies to undertake in 2011. The focus of the research was to consider the risks which vulnerable young people, excluded from schools and being taught in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), encounter online and through their mobile phones.

The aim was to then ascertain what specific advice, support and safeguarding training staff working with these vulnerable young people need when it comes to understanding social media and mobile technology.

The report, with its strong child-centric approach, clear recommendations and practical suggestions for the development of appropriate resources, is intended to positively support dedicated staff who undertake such important work caring for vulnerable YP in the ‘blended’ environments of education, social care, and well-being. Many of the young people they work with have mental health problems, a ‘Statement’ of special educational needs, be school-phobic or have very real emotional behavioural difficulties and the report examines the challenges that PRU’s staff face in responding to such a wide range of student’s needs.

There is also a section on difficulties of classifying what we mean as ‘vulnerable’. However, the central thrust of the report is that whilst the offline physical environments are challenging, the virtual environments these young people inhabit are equally important, challenging and potentially transformational. To serve vulnerable young people adequately, it is vital to take into consideration the ways in which they are vulnerable and at risk online. It is hoped others will discuss these findings, support the recommendations and build on the work with further research looking at the area of E-safety in policy, practice and pedagogy.

You can download the 10 page summary document here

 These are the summary 8 findings and recommendations:


1) The task of assessing the correlation between offline vulnerability and online risk for certain groups is problematic but important broad principles can be extrapolated. 

Mobile communication is now the single most important activity many vulnerable YP rely on to give them identity, connection and a sense of community.  Consequently, staff working in PRUs (and elsewhere) must be given ongoing support and hands-on training to better understand how interacting with new social media and mobile platforms create positive opportunities but, equally, very real challenges for vulnerable young people

2)  For most young people, the primary gateway to the internet is now their mobile phone. Because YP can access, update and interact with their social networking service easily, on the move and ever more privately, this creates particular risks for those who are already vulnerable.   Furthermore, because of the way in which young people are able to ‘screen munch’ messages and use platforms such as BBM to message one-to-many, there is much less distinction between what is private and what is public.

There are complex questions as to whether new ICT services simply amplify offline behaviour or whether they act as what this report terms an ‘incubator’ (where communication is created, uploaded, stored, mutated or morphed and then re-broadcast as something else). It is important for all those with a duty of care for YP to understand how new mobile social networking platforms are influencing relationships and behaviour both within and outside the learning environment.  This must be covered as part of teacher training and CPD.

3)  Any assessment of online risk has to be informed by young people’s own experience.  Resonating with the principles of emancipatory research (that an oppressed group has access to knowledge in a way that others do not), it is vital that the voices of ‘excluded’ young people are properly heard.

In this area where young people have the expertise, it is essential to help them explore online relationships, privacy and risky behaviour themselves and to support them in better sharing this understanding with staff and peers. Working with YP (rather than simply giving guidance to young people in a vacuum) on how to avoid risk is essential. The group of YP in this study identified issues under the headings of Identity, Relationships, Conflict and Coping.  This illustrates that  E-safety cannot be effectively taught as a ‘bolt-on’ but needs to be embedded into the wider teaching of emotional, social and digital literacies.

4)  It is becoming apparent that there are very risky offline situations which vulnerable young people especially can get drawn into online; for example, becoming unwitting participants in “anti-social networking” by accepting an invitation to an event which turns out to be a violent event.

Building on the work already carried out about teen violence[1], more research should be undertaken specifically about the targeting of young boys for gang membership and the peer-grooming of young women by older boys via mobile phones and social location applications. A multi-agency-supported education and safeguarding campaign addressing how to help vulnerable YP avoid being drawn into offline crime (via mobiles) should be developed.


5)  Empowering vulnerable young people to overcome the challenges and risks they face online takes expertise, resources and ultimately a whole-community commitment.   There are no quick fixes which can fully protect vulnerable YP from risky behaviour online.  What is needed is what is required in every other area of work with vulnerable YP: a shared whole-community commitment.

Because there appeared to be little consistency and a lack of parity in relation to how PRUs developed their Acceptable Use Policies, it is vital that PRUs are given more support and guidance on developing effective policies, including how to involve users in the drafting of these policies.


6)  It is crucial to balance the risks and showcase the very real positive ways technology can be used to support vulnerable YP. Examples of how vulnerable young people and staff positively engage with social media and mobile phones in PRUs should be better promoted and disseminated.

It is important to appreciate the extent to which professionals working with vulnerable YP outside of PRUs find it invaluable to use social networking and mobile tools to reach and support YP who may otherwise be missed, including ‘friending’ for professional purposes (with built-in accountability and transparency).  PRU staff should be better supported in piloting creative educational and care practices using mobile and social media safely.


7)  Many PRUs have a mixture of paid teachers and external agencies working with pupils in centres and in the community, so it is vital to create a standardised approach to E-safety.  Furthermore, at a time when the Government looks set to put a new onus on schools to provide education for excluded pupils and has a desire to see more PRUs set up by voluntary sector providers, it is vital that there are consistent standards for E-safety.

A national conference bringing a range of practitioners from different sectors working with vulnerable YP (including SEN, migrant communities etc) should be convened to provide an important forum for identifying work being carried out, sharing experience, mapping needs and learning from each other.


8)  Many vulnerable YP have a lack of understanding of the consequences of risky behaviour online and may be unable or unwilling to get help.  Supporting vulnerable young people when something goes wrong online can be extremely challenging, not only because of limited supervision, but also because vulnerable YP may have less understanding of their rights, fewer supporting mechanisms and mistrust for authority figures. Staff reported that they need help in understanding the legalities of handling disclosures.

It is vital that staff are vigilant, are able to recognise signs of distress and understand that in all areas of conflict there may be an online dimension. Whilst making a report or talking to a trained but unknown counsellor is important, vulnerable YP also need to have someone they trust and respect who can provide support and help build resilience in coping.  Further research is needed looking at the ‘addiction’ (or what the report calls ‘compulsion’) element of YP’s use of mobile phones. Embedding this personal aspect of safeguarding into the curriculum and culture of PRUs and properly resourcing professional development and training is crucial.




 [1] See the ground-breaking report carried out by the NSPCC and Bristol University, which found that 33 per cent of girls and 16 per cent of boys

reported some form of sexual abuse. See also the ‘Expect Respect’ Toolkit for addressing Teenage Relationship Abuse by the Home Office and Women’s Aid