Online Safety in Autistic Children

Lead Research Organisation: Heriot-Watt University
Department Name: S of Mathematical and Computer Sciences


Frequent online activity increases children's exposure to online privacy risks. Children with autism are heavy consumers of technology, including online platforms. Limited research conducted suggests that this population is vulnerable to online security risks. Parents of children with autism have concerns about using technology, with many restricting their online activities via security technologies (parental apps) or altogether. It is unknown what online platforms present the most security risks for children with autism. To date, no comprehensive research has compared the online safety behaviours of children with autism with typically developing children.

The PhD will comprise of four phases. Phase 1 will involve the creation of a parental survey examining online platform use in relation to online safety use. The questions will focus on the child's online activities and why they use online platforms, in particular for social interactions and sharing interests. These will be disseminated to parents of children (with and without autism). The questions will cover: the child's online engagement (time spent using online platforms, which platforms are most frequently used, reasons for use and ease navigating such platforms); the child's online safety behaviour (platforms where most frequent risks occur, which platforms pose the most severe risks and strategies for reducing online safety risks); and parents online safety awareness (knowledge of online safety risks, confidence managing child's online safety risks and strategies for reducing child's online safety risks. Phase 2 will involve follow up interviews with parents of autistic children and the young people themselves. These will focus on their lived experiences of online platform use and online safety risks, in particular child and parent perceptions of online risks and how they control them.

Phase 3 will involve the design of 'nudging' tool. We will create varying warning message displays (e.g. visual, verbal and a combination of both) and message content (e.g. fear messages, solution messages and or/fear plus solution messages. These will be piloted to investigate which format is ranked higher in usability by autistic children and their parents. Finally, Phase 4 will focus on the implementation of a randomised control trial to investigate whether it is effective in reducing online safety risks in autistic children whilst maintaining children's independence online.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/N509474/1 01/10/2016 30/09/2021
2124883 Studentship EP/N509474/1 15/01/2018 16/07/2021 Kirsty Macmillan