Get SMART (Social Media Awareness and Resilience Training) is a user-led project for young people with learning disabilities at risk of radicalisation through social media.
In 2017, I was astonished to discover that 75% of young people being referred to the Channel element of the Prevent programme on my part of South West England had learning disabilities or autism. Through a previous ARC project on mate crime I knew that these youngsters were much more susceptible to online exploitation, but the scale of it still surprised me.
We had 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) but times have changed.
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 are on the autistic spectrum. All were either groomed or grew their radical ideas online.
In 2018, ARC was awarded funding from ISD and Google.org to support grassroots responses to radicalisation and extremism. We were one of just 22 successful applicants out of over 270, and the ‘Get SMART’ project was born.
The model we used was adapted from previous work completed on sexual exploitation and mate crime. Teams of 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 expert speakers from ISD, 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 previous generations, who are the people now educating these students today.
Following their research and discussion periods, the students then used their insights to develop learning materials, both for their peers and 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 proved to be very positive.
ARC is now delighted to be able to share all of the material produced through Get SMART. Our teaching plans, resources and evaluation can be downloaded from our website – feel free to download yours today – and if you would like to know more or share ideas we would love to hear from you.