Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Internet and Youth with Intellectual Disabilities

This post goes out especially to parents of teens with intellectual disabilities.

A Whole New World: Facebook

This post came to mind because I'm doing a project on social media sites such as Facebook and Myspace for an agency right now, but I've long had concerns about these sites when it comes to users with intellectual disabilities. I've worked with youth with mild intellectual disabilities who have profiles on sites like Facebook and MySpace, and some of them manage it quite well: they know what information to make public and not to make public, they know all the people on their "friends list", and they've had someone look at their profile and make sure that their security settings are such that only authorized people can see what they post.

More often, however, I was dismayed by what I've seen when I searched for (and easily found) their profiles on Facebook (I can't really talk about MySpace, as I've never used it, but I'd imagine that the situation isn't much different there). For most youth that ended up on Facebook, I could see what they and others had written on their "wall" without being a "friend", indicating lax security settings. Some include personal information on their profiles. And Facebook, as a general social force, causes no end of trouble, because this demographic doesn't generally have 1) the discernment skills to be able to determine, "I should not be talking to this person" and 2) sufficient knowledge and skills to get out of a situation that they can't can't handle when their discernment skills let them down.

Strategy and Preparation

Please don't take that to mean that I don't believe there's a place for people with intellectual disabilities on Facebook.  I think that all social media applications present a marvelous opportunity for people with all sorts of disabilities to network, educate, and make new friends (see "My Name is Sarah" in the blogroll to read a delightful blog by a young woman with Down's Syndrome, assisted by her mother). But safety has to be considered. I'm of the parenting school that believes that it's okay to insist that you have your teen's Facebook password, whether they have disabilities or not (up until 18, and I'd prefer that they agree to let me have it longer than that if they have an intellectual disability, but I can't force them), but you'll have to decide what you feel about that.

If you have a young person with an intellectual disability in your life who wants to be involved with Facebook, please do the following for their sake:

  1. If he's in school, get in touch with his teachers. Find out what he's learning about the internet and services like Facebook. Is he being taught about Internet safety? Is it being taught once and then the class moves on (information this important needs repetition and reminders).  What kind of internet services are the students signing up for in computer classes? Are the students blocked from accessing any services from school?

  2. Talk to your teen. Why does she want a Facebook account? Does she know what it means to use it responsibly?

  3.  If you don't feel comfortable having his password, does he know that he should come to you if he comes across something that he can't handle?

  4. Does she know about the Facebook features that she can use to deal with conflict with others?

Heck, have these conversations with *all* your children.  Social media is good for a lot of stuff...but it's best to make sure that everyone is using it safely.

Have any parents of kids with disabilities out there had some experience, good or bad, with the internet?  What's your number one concern? What's your number one suggestion?  Someday I'd like to write some sort of curriculum that agencies could use to educate people with intellectual disabilities about internet safety, so I'm interested in hearing about peoples' experiences...

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