How cyberbullying impacts the lives of children and young people in NI

To mark Anti-Bullying Week 2023, a new ‘Spotlight’ report highlights the nature and extent of cyberbullying among children and young people in Northern Ireland.

Drawing out key insights from their recent large-scale research project Growing Up Online: Children’s online activities, harm and safety in Northern Ireland funded by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI), the research team at Stranmillis University College’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) has shone a particular spotlight on bullying behaviours as reported by children and young people aged 8-18.

The findings presented in this Spotlight report highlight the wide variety of online bullying behaviours which are experienced by children and young people in Northern Ireland, ranging from mean or nasty comments being made or sent to them and being excluded from WhatsApp groups, through to online blackmail, threats and being told to self-harm.

Among the key findings from the 6500 survey responses and interviews with almost 100 children and young people are that:

  • A total of 13% of children aged 8-13 reported that someone had been mean to them online within the previous two months, with a higher incidence among girls than boys.
  • Girls aged 14-18 were more likely than boys to report that mean or nasty comments had been made about them or sent to them, more likely to have had lies or rumours told about them, and more likely to have been excluded from an online group.
  • Boys aged 14-18 were however more likely than girls to report that someone had tried to blackmail them, that they had been threatened online, or that their account had been hacked.
  • LGBTQI+ young people aged 14-18 were more likely than heterosexual young people to report that they had received mean or nasty comments or that they had been threatened.
  • Less than a third (31%) of 14-18 year olds said that they had reported the cyberbullying compared to almost half (47%) of 8-13 year olds. In both cases children and young people are more likely to tell their friends than family members or someone at school.
  • While incidents of online bullying were reported to have very significant emotional impact on the children and young people concerned, it was striking how some of the young people appeared to accept a certain level of online risk and danger, and appeared confident in dealing with such incidents.

The authors of the Spotlight report welcome the news that the UK’s Online Safety Act was granted Royal Assent on 26 October 2023, which legally obliges internet and social media companies to do more to protect their users, with hefty fines imposed if they fail in their new duty of care.

Lead author, Prof Noel Purdy, commented, “This is an important report which provides fresh evidence of the extent of online bullying among our children and young people in Northern Ireland.  In this Anti-Bullying Week, we hope that the findings will help inform educators and policy makers as they seek to keep our children safe online.”

The Growing Up Online Spotlight Report on Cyberbullying can be downloaded here:

Growing Up Online in NI: new report highlights children’s online activities, dangers and opportunities

Growing Up Online: Children’s Online Activities, Harm and Safety in Northern Ireland, a new research report from Stranmillis University College’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU), examines what children and young people enjoy doing online, what dangers they encounter, and what training and support they receive. The research was funded by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI).

The report has been commissioned to inform the delivery of actions associated with the Northern Ireland Executive’s five-year Keeping Children and Young People Safe: An Online Safety Strategy – which is in year two of implementation.

The publication will be launched at an event in Stranmillis University College on 21 September by Bernie McNally, the Independent Chair of the SBNI, and speakers will include Professor Noel Purdy Director of CREU and Principal Investigator of the research project; and Peter Toogood, Department of Health and Chair of the Child Protection Senior Officials Group. Some of the children and young people who participated in the large-scale research will attend the report launch, alongside a range of key stakeholders.

Two online surveys were administered to children and young people from across Northern Ireland, aged between 8-18 years. One version of the survey was administered to 8-13 year olds and another version to 14-18 year olds.  The surveys remained open for 4 weeks from 6th February to 6th March 2023 and were completed by a total of 6481 children and young people, making this the largest such study ever carried out in Northern Ireland.

In addition, 95 participants took part in the qualitative aspects of this research, including children and young people in mainstream primary and post-primary schools, special schools and youth club settings, as well as parents, teachers/school leaders, and professionals working in the field of online safety. Participants included Traveller/Roma children, LGBTQI+ young people, children with severe learning difficulties, young people in a youth club setting in a disadvantaged urban context, and pupils from an Irish-medium school.  The project was supported by two children and young people’s advisory groups (one primary and one post-primary).

The study found that:

  • POSITIVE EXPERIENCES: Children and Young People in Northern Ireland reported a wide range of positive online experiences. They use a range of online devices (predominantly phones) which allow them to enjoy listening to music, watching videos, playing games, messaging friends and family, shopping, sharing photos, following celebrities/influencers, learning and much more.  For children and young people, being online is absolutely integral to how they live almost every aspect of their lives today.
  • TIME SPENT ONLINE: This study has also provided evidence that children and young people are spending many hours online each day, on school days but especially at weekends and during holidays. While most internet use is within reasonable limits (2-4 hours per school day), there is evidence that many children and young people are spending much greater amounts of time online (frequently more than 7 hours per day). The impact of this high usage, as reported by the young people and confirmed by their teachers, was a growing trend for pupils to come in to school “wrecked” or “in a complete state” or with their “heads down… sleeping” in class.  All post-primary focus groups confirmed that this was commonplace and becoming more common, while 27% of the survey respondents (aged 14-18) reported feeling tired the next day as a result of their online activity at night.
  • PARENTAL/CARER INTEREST: A further conclusion relates to the role played by parents (and/or carers) in supporting their children to grow up safe online. The findings of this study found a disparity between children and young people’s perceptions of their parents’ (often low) level of interest in what they were doing online, and the genuine fears and concerns expressed by the primary and post-primary parents who volunteered for the focus groups.  For instance, only 17% of 8-13 year olds and just 8% of 14-18 year olds reported that their parents were ‘very interested’ in what they were doing online, while 20% of 8-13 year olds and 34% of 14-18 year olds felt that their parents were ‘not at all interested’ in their online activities.
  • NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES: This study has found clear evidence that around 1 in 5 children and young people in Northern Ireland (20% of 8-13 year olds and 18% of 14-18 year olds) have experienced something nasty or unpleasant happening to them online over the past couple of months, most commonly on social media apps. This research has highlighted the wide range of online risks experienced by children and young people in Northern Ireland, especially 14-18 year olds.  The results have also shown  that girls are much more likely to experience something nasty or unpleasant online, both among the younger cohort (23% girls vs 17% boys) and the older cohort (20% girls vs 15% boys).  For instance, among the older cohort (14-18 years old), girls (5.4%) were 3 times more likely than boys (1.7%) to be asked to send nude photos/videos of themselves, girls (6.9%) were more than twice as likely as boys (3%) to be sent inappropriate photos they didn’t ask for, and twice as likely to see or be sent pornography (girls: 5.6% vs boys 3.0%).  Girls were also more likely to see or be sent content promoting self-harm (girls: 3.3% vs boys 2.2%), eating disorders (girls: 4.1% vs boys 1.6%) or suicide (girls: 3.6% vs boys 3.0%).
  • TRAINING AND RESOURCES: While there were high levels of confidence in keeping themselves safe online among more than three-quarters of the children and young people, there is evidently a strong need to provide relevant, up-to-date, age-appropriate, supportive and engaging training and resources (in English and Irish) for children and young people, but also for parents and teachers/educators. This research has highlighted the benefits of children receiving online training, revealing that (across both age cohorts) children who had received online safety training were less likely to report recent negative online experiences happening to them than those children and young people who had not received any training.
  • REGULATION: Finally, we would recommend that there is greater regulation of social media companies by government to help ensure: closer monitoring of online material that is potentially offensive or harmful to children and young people; more transparent, consistent and child-friendly online reporting mechanisms; the timely removal of offensive material; and stricter enforcement of age restrictions on certain apps or sites, where currently it is much too easy for children to enter a false date of birth.

Commenting on the findings, the chair of the Safeguarding Board for NI, Bernie McNally said:

 “There is much to reflect on in the research findings, and in the views and voices of young people that are threaded through the report. It provides a uniquely detailed insight into how thousands of local children experience growing up online.

The report clearly presents the complex picture of children’s online activities, highlighting both the positive and negative experiences and risks that they face. It emphasises that we all have a role to play and action to take in helping children and families feel more secure, safe and supported online.”

Commenting on the findings, Peter Toogood, Deputy Secretary of Social Services Group, Department of Health and Chair of the Child Protection Senior Officials Group said:

“Research like this is crucial to understanding how children and young people in Northern Ireland experience the digital world and, as Chair of a cross-government child protection group, I welcome both the research and the report it has produced.

It is important that we recognise how integral the online world is to our children and the huge benefits it can provide. We must acknowledge that empowering our children to embrace the digital world while keeping them safe and providing them with the skills to keep themselves safe is a balancing act.”

Speaking about the report, Director of CREU and Principal Investigator of the research project, Professor Noel Purdy, said:

“This report sheds new light on how our children are growing up online and presents a wide variety of experiences, some encouraging, others disturbing.  We hope that the findings presented in this report will provide a strong evidence base to inform future policy and practice around our children’s online lives as we seek to provide opportunities for them to enjoy safely all the benefits of their increasingly online lives.”

An Executive Summary of the report can be downloaded here.

The Full Report can be downloaded here.

New report highlights the costs of Government cuts to children and young people in Northern Ireland

Download the report by clicking on the image above.

Today, a group of researchers from Ulster University, Stranmillis University College, Newcastle University, and Queen’s University Belfast have launched a report outlining the catastrophic consequences of the cuts to education for children and young people in Northern Ireland.

The authors make the case for immediately ending the reliance on civil servants to make policy decisions.

The report argues that cuts to education are being made with minimal input from the UK Government and little say from Northern Ireland’s own elected representatives, undermining the principle of political accountability and public sector equalities duties.

The authors paint a devastating picture of how the cuts will disproportionately impact the most disadvantaged children and young people in our communities. The short-term savings will be dwarfed by the costs of poverty, deprivation, and mental health issues in the longer run.

New Decade, New Approach committed the NI Executive ‘to establish an expert group to examine the links between persistent educational underachievement and socio-economic background and draw up an action plan for change that will ensure all children and young people, regardless of background, are given the best start in life’.

The expert group’s action plan, ‘A Fair Start’, was published in June 2021 and provided a fully costed roadmap to closing the educational attainment gap.

However, the report launched today argues that the removal of, or deep cuts to, schemes such as those to alleviate holiday hunger, period poverty and digital inequalities, as well as to initiatives to support children’s mental wellbeing and reduce the pandemic learning gap, undermines the realisation of the recommendations made in ‘A Fair Start’.

The report suggests that the situation for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) is particularly severe. The Education Authority’s budget for the transformation of the SEN system is due to be cut by 50% despite the fact that there has been a 24% increase in the number of children with statements over the past 5 years, with hundreds of children awaiting specialist placement for September.

The report’s overarching finding is that cuts will have an unfair cumulative impact on groups which are already disadvantaged, in terms of their experience of education provision. There is a clear and unequivocal breach of educational rights contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick (Ulster University), who convened the group of researchers, said:

“The cuts to education will undoubtedly increase poverty and hardship for many households in Northern Ireland, but particularly those with the lowest incomes – such as those children entitled to Free School Meals.”

“These cuts are coming at a time when high inflation doggedly persists, with food prices rising at a startling rate. The loss of holiday hunger payments will cause significant harm to children and their families, and there will undoubtedly be children who will not receive the nutrition they need to thrive.”

“The high costs of school uniforms will add further stress to finances that are stretched to the limit. Despite the 20% increase in the uniform allowance last year, NI still lags provision in England, Scotland and Wales.”

 Professor Noel Purdy (Stranmillis University College) lead author of ‘A Fair Start’ said:

“This is a catastrophic situation for the provision of education in Northern Ireland. It is the most punitive budget that has ever been delivered to the Department of Education, at a time when more support is needed to account for the pressures caused by the cost-of-living crisis.”

“The cuts will further exacerbate educational underachievement for those children already identified as having persistent low attainment rates, including children entitled to Free School Meals, ethnic minority children and children in care.”

“Furthermore, the Special Educational Needs system is on its knees and is failing to ensure appropriate access to education for the most vulnerable children in our society. Unless we see urgent transformation, policy progression and real investment, the system faces collapse.”



  • The ‘rapid response’ report was completed between May-June 2023.
  • The researchers received no external funding or payment for this work; however, we are grateful to have received an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration grant from Queen’s University, Belfast, which allowed us to organise a launch event at Currie Primary School.
  • Each contributor wrote or co-wrote at least one section of the report corresponding to their specific research expertise and experience and have drawn together research evidence from a wide range of primary and secondary sources.

The cuts the researchers are aware of are:

  • An end to Free School Meal Payments during holiday periods (‘Holiday Hunger Scheme’) which provided 96,300 children with £27 a fortnight.
  • An end to Happy Healthy Minds
  • An end to Engage
  • An end to the Digital Devices scheme
  • An end to the Baby Book scheme
  • A pause on capital development
  • 28 New school projects paused
  • A 40% cut to Free Period Products budget
  • A 50% cut to the Shared Education budget
  • A reduction in Nurture funding from £70 million to £62 million
  • An end to schools coaching programme run by Irish Football Association (IFA) and Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA)
  • An end to funding available to Young Enterprise NI
  • A pause on a cashless scheme for schools
  • A depletion of funding available to Extended Schools
  • A significant shortfall in resource for pupils with SEN
  • A pause on the recruitment of school crossing patrols

Stranmillis congratulates educators recognised in King’s Birthday Honours List

The recently announced King’s Birthday Honours List recognises those who have made a very significant contribution to society. In Northern Ireland this year, the list includes many honoured for their services to Education.

Commenting on the announcement of the list, Prof. Jonathan Heggarty, MBE, Principal and CEO of Stranmillis University College said.

“On behalf of Stranmillis University College, I would like to congratulate all those whose dedicated service to education has been recognized this year. Education touches everyone in Northern Ireland and plays a key role in building better futures for all. The number of honourees for their services to education reflects the vital role played by teachers, leaders, officials and all others involved in education.”

“Our special congratulations go to Queen’s University Belfast Vice Chancellor Professor Ian Greer DL, who was Knighted in the Honours List. A world-renowned academic and leader who has lead Queen’s University since 2018, Professor Greer has made a significant impact on Queen’s University, the wider education landscape and the reputation of Northern Ireland, nationally and internationally.”

“We are also particularly delighted that one of our Board of Governors, Mrs Heather Miller has been awarded a MBE for her services to education.”

“Our sincere congratulations also go to:

  • Professor Vincent Fusco, Queen’s University Belfast, awarded the CBE; Shirley Jones, Department of Education; Roisin Marshall, Chief Executive Officer, Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education; Fiona McDonald, Principal, Drumnamoe Nursery School and Sharon Tennant, lately Principal of Sandelford Special School, who were all awarded the OBE
  • Professor Ruth Fee, Ulster University; Catherine Humphrey, Principal, Groggan Primary School; Sean Dillon, Principal, Primate Dixon Primary School; and Wilson McCluggage, Queen’s University Belfast, who were all awarded the MBE
  • Gillian Gough, for services to education in Co. Armagh, Veronica Hammersley, School Crossing Patrol Officer, Patrick McCullough, Queen’s University Belfast and Dorothy Moore, Crumlin Integrated Primary School, who were all awarded the BEM.”

Transfer Talk! Share your experiences of school transfer without tests

Would you like to share your experiences of school transfer without tests in 2021?

Stranmillis University College and the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) would like to hear about the experiences of school pupils and parents of school pupils who were in P7  when transfer tests were cancelled due to Covid-19.

This research project is entitled Transfer Talk: Exploring the lived experiences of NI school transfer without tests in 2021, and has been funded by the Office of the Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, a follow up to our recent Nuffield-funded project entitled “Testing Times”.

To gather your views, we have created two online surveys.

If you are the parent of a pupil who was P7 in 2020/2021, please click here.

If you are a pupil who was P7 in 2020/2021 please click here to access the survey for you

When you enter the survey you will find more information on the research.

Surveys close at midnight on Friday 30th June 2023.

If you have any questions, you can email the lead researcher Prof Noel Purdy (

Grammar vs Non-Grammar in NI: new report highlights consistently stark social differences in pupil intake

Testing Times – Northern Ireland Post-Primary School Transfer without Tests in 2021, a new research report from Stranmillis University College’s Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU), examines some of the lessons from the ‘non-testing’ year of post-primary transfer in Northern Ireland, when AQE and GL tests were postponed and eventually cancelled as a result of Covid-19 public health concerns.

The issue of post-primary transfer by means of academic selection has been the focus of a highly polarised policy debate in Northern Ireland (as in other jurisdictions) for many years.  With the cancellation of transfer tests for P7 pupils in 2020-21, grammar schools were forced to develop a range of alternative admissions criteria, quite different from previous years.

This timely research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, seeks to capture the learning from this unique year, by examining the range of admissions criteria adopted by grammar schools, assessing the impact of these on the social and demographic background of pupils accepted into grammar and non-grammar schools, and evaluating the impact on the distance for pupils to travel, in comparison with previous years.

The study found that:

  • Grammar schools exercised their freedom to set their own admissions criteria in the non-testing year, prioritising having an older sibling already at the school; having already registered for the AQE/GL tests in that year; being the eldest/first/only child in the family; having a sibling who was previously enrolled at the school; and attending a listed feeder primary school.
  • Additional information provided to parents alongside the admissions criteria frequently highlighted grammar schools’ commitment to academic selection as the principal method of entry to their school, and their intention to revert to academic selection in subsequent years. A majority also referred to fees payable.
  • Analysis of the (non-testing) 2021-22 year 8 grammar and non-grammar school cohorts compared to the previous year 2020-21 showed very minimal differences in terms of gender, newcomer children, level of deprivation, distance travelled to school, and the percentage of the cohort with Free School Meal Entitlement and Special Educational Needs (including with statements). Figures for ethnicity and children in care were too low to allow a comparison to be made.  System-level attainment data for the cohort were not available.
  • While there was little change in the demographic composition of the year 8 cohort transferring to post-primary schools in 2021-22, the data reveal very stark differences (consistent over the past four years, including the non-testing year) in the pupil cohorts entering year 8 in grammar schools when compared to non-grammar schools. Using the 2021-22 year 8 cohort by way of example, these differences relate to:
    • Free School Meals (grammar: 15.8% vs non-grammar: 39%)
    • Special Educational Needs (grammar: 5.6% vs non-grammar: 25.2%)
    • Newcomer children (grammar: 1.1% vs non-grammar: 5.8%).
    • Level of Deprivation (grammar school intakes are skewed towards the higher (less deprived) MDM deciles and non-grammar school intakes are skewed towards the lower (more deprived) MDM deciles, though important differences were noted by school management type).

Speaking about the report, Director of CREU and Principal Investigator of the research, Prof Noel Purdy, said “We hope that the findings presented in this report will help unlock the current policy paralysis around academic selection in Northern Ireland, and encourage fresh evidence-based discussion among all interested parties (politicians, policy-makers, school leaders, parents and children) around the future of post-primary transfer in Northern Ireland.”

The full report, including executive summary, can be downloaded here.

An online event launching the report will take place 2.00-3.30pm GMT on 25th April 2023. You can register for this free event here.


  • The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit
  • About CREU: The Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement (CREU) was launched in 2018 with the core aim of engaging in a focused portfolio of innovative interdisciplinary research into educational underachievement in Northern Ireland. See:
  • Previous Covid-19 / education research reports by the Stranmillis CREU team can be found here:
  • Contact details: for further information, contact: Prof Noel Purdy Email: