Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Safeguarding vulnerable children online

  Mel Wilson (2018 cohort)   www.melaniewilson.uk

Online Life

Children and adults both tend to have an online presence in the modern world. Increasingly this is unavoidable with everyday functions taking place online rather than in the real world. Homework is set online. Social interaction is online. Research for school topics are online and communication is online in the form of messaging such as instagram, whatsapp. Snapchat etc. Games have moved from the playground and street to online, in a world that is inundated by news of the dangers the world poses, often inaccurately.



Bereaved children and children of separated, hostile, parents are particularly vulnerable. The current literature mainly revolves around statistics relating to crime and prison, injury and death, education and other “real world” factors. With increasing use of online interaction in young people's lives, it is proposed that the factors that increase vulnerability are potentially magnified online. This is suggested by two main causal factors. The first is that from an Evolutionary Psychology prospective we, as a species, still react to others as if we were physically present with them in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptiveness (EEA). This means we can miss online signs of danger seen in physical encounters which ensured our ancestors survival.



The second is that online predators are not restricted by the physical space and the likely repercussions that would make them warier of a direct approach in the EEA and many ongoing real-world situations, where the risk of physical or social damage, for example from a protective relative, would have been high. Online perpetrators can effectively act with little or no personal risk. Some children in the 'bereaved' or 'separated' categories show greater resilience. This is multi factorial, including family, community and school support. It is the aim of the study to investigate how this resilience increases and how it might be increased further.


Calibration aims to help individuals in assessing the probability of a risk outcome accurately. This can be done by various methods but for the purpose of calibrating children a methodology in which they will be happy to engage is felt to be very important and in addition respect for their autonomy is vital. Telling people what not to do, tends to lead to resistance, whereas allowing informed choices tends to allow to greater consideration of the positive and negative factors. This is particularly likely in the vulnerable population where often fewer choices are generally able to be made. Calibration will aim to increase resilience and secure attachment by focusing on strategies which have been shown to affect the neural pathways of individuals in a positive manner towards this. It can have a long term and far reaching effect on a person’s ability to assess risk and to decide for themselves what level of risk they feel is acceptable. More details of the type of intervention proposed can be seen in the publication section.


Selected References

  • Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. N. (2015). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press.

  • Bartlett, J. (2015). The dark net: Inside the digital underworld. Melville House.

  • Bekoff, M., & Byers, J. A. (2004). Animal play: Evolutionary, comparative and ecological perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Berg, L., Rostila, M., Saarela, J., & Hjern, A. (2014). Parental death during childhood and subsequent school performance. Pediatrics, peds-2013.

  • Borelli, J. L., Compare, A., Snavely, J. E., & Decio, V. (2015). Reflective functioning moderates the association between perceptions of parental neglect and attachment in adolescence. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32(1), 23.

  • Bowlby, J. (1997). Attachment (Vol. 1). Random House.

  • Bruce, T. (2010). From Reaction to Reflection. Children and Adolescents in Trauma: Creative Therapeutic Approaches, 18, 199.

  • Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1999). The truth about Cinderella: A Darwinian view of parental love. Yale University Press.

  • Farb, N. A., Segal, Z. V., Mayberg, H., Bean, J., McKeon, D., Fatima, Z., & Anderson, A. K. (2007). Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 2(4), 313-322.

  • Fox, E., Griggs, L., & Mouchlianitis, E. (2007). The detection of fear-relevant stimuli: Are guns noticed as quickly as snakes?. Emotion, 7(4), 691.

  • Gardner, D. (2009). Risk: The science and politics of fear. Random House.

  • Harkins, M. (2013). Managing risk and information security. New York City: Apress, 87-102.

  • Hetherington, E. M. (2014). Coping with divorce, single parenting, and remarriage: A risk and resiliency perspective. Psychology Press.

  • Joshi, M. S., MacLean, M., & Stevens, C. (2018). Accident frequency and unrealistic optimism: Children’s assessment of risk. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 111, 142-146.

  • Landreth, G. (2012). Play therapy. New York: Routledge.

  • Lamb, R., Joshi, M.S., Carter, W., Cowburn, G. and Matthews, A. (2006). Children's acquisition and retention of safety skills: the Lifeskills program, Injury Prevention, 12, 161-165

  • Lichtenstein S., Fischhoff B., and Phillips L.D., "Calibration of Probabilities: The State of the Art to 1980," (1982) in Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, eds. D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, and A. Tversky, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, , pp. 306-334,

  • Luthar, S. S. (2015). Resilience in development: A synthesis of research across five decades. Developmental Psychopathology: Volume Three: Risk, Disorder, and Adaptation, 739-795.

  • Pham, S., Porta, G., Biernesser, C., Walker Payne, M., Iyengar, S., Melhem, N., & Brent, D. A. (2018). The Burden of Bereavement: Early-Onset Depression and Impairment in Youths Bereaved by Sudden Parental Death in a 7-Year Prospective Study. American Journal of Psychiatry, appi-ajp.

  • Sarkar, M., & Fletcher, D. (2017). How resilience training can enhance wellbeing and performance. In M. F. Crane (Ed.), Managing for resilience: A practical guide for employee wellbeing and organizational performance (pp. 227-237). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group

  • Slade, A. (2005). Parental reflective functioning: An introduction. Attachment & human development, 7(3), 269-281.

  • Slovic, P. (2016). The perception of risk. Routledge.

  • Tracey, M. R., & Polachek, S. W. (2018). If looks could heal: Child health and paternal investment. Journal of health economics, 57, 179-190.

  • Trayser J R (2016) The ACEs Revolution: The impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences

  • Williams, R., Elliott, I. A., & Beech, A. R. (2013). Identifying sexual grooming themes used by internet sex offenders. Deviant Behavior, 34(2), 135-152.



This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/L015463/1).