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Online Safety for Children with LD

Many students with learning disabilities struggle with social interactions and appropriate behavior, putting them at greater risk for bullying, harassment, and victimization online. While the internet can be beneficial for developing social and technical skills, it’s important to talk children with disabilities about online safety and responsibility.

Bullying among children with learning disabilities

All children are at risk for being bullied or harassed, but studies show that children with LD, ADHD, and emotional/behavioral disorders are more likely than their peers to be bullied or become bullies themselves (Snyder, 2003; HRSA, 2007). Many parents and teachers of children with disabilities are well aware of the potential for in-class bullying of kids seen as different and make efforts to stop bullying before it starts; but what about bullying and harassment that teachers and parents don’t see? With young people’s increasing presence online, much of the inappropriate behavior, language, and material they may come in contact with is beyond the immediate view of parents, teachers, and guardians.

Preparing all students for safe interactions online is therefore important, and it is all the more critical to examine the special risks and concerns that students with disabilities face online. This Information Brief, prepared by the Center for Implementing Technology in Education, examines Internet safety issues for students with LD and ADHD and provides practical guidance for parents, teachers, and students seeking to navigate the brave new online world safely.

Special considerations for students with disabilities online

Though some research has shown that young people with disabilities are at a greater risk of being victims of bullying and harassment, there is little research about how these risks extend to online behavior. However, it is safe to assume that many of the same issues exist online as they do offline.

Many kids with LD, ADHD, and/or emotional/behavioral disorders struggle with social interactions and appropriate behavior. They may have difficulty reading social cues, regulating their behavior, determining the accuracy of information, or judging if someone is trustworthy. Because of these social challenges, kids with LD may be at a higher risk for bullying, harassment, and victimization when interacting with peers and adults online.

Social interactions are complex; the social skills needed for basic conversations are different than those needed for resolving conflicts and determining appropriate behavior in social situations. For example, basic social skills include the ability to maintain eye contact, understand facial expressions, and recognize appropriate personal space (Canney & Byrne, 2006; Waltz, 1999). Participating in more complex social situations, on the other hand, requires interaction (resolving conflicts, taking turns, interacting with authority figures), affective skills (identifying feelings, understanding the feelings of others, recognizing whether someone is to be trusted), and cognitive social skills (making choices, self-monitoring, understanding community norms).

These skills, which are certainly important in face-to-face communication, are essential to healthy and safe online interactions as well. This places children who have difficulties with complex social skills at a potentially higher risk for dangers online. For example, a student who is challenged by making appropriate choices or recognizing strangers’ trustworthiness may more easily become an online victim of a sexual predator, an email phishing(opens in a new window) scheme, or cyberbullying.

Any child may inadvertently develop a relationship online with someone who seems friendly - someone who takes an interest in his or her life and asks superficially harmless questions about his or her home, school, or friends. However, a tween or teen with LD may not recognize that this seemingly friendly adult is asking inappropriate questions or that certain types of information may be dangerous to share with a stranger (phone number, school, real name, etc.). Since children with LD are more prone to loneliness (Margalit & Al-Yagon, 2002), they may be especially vulnerable to the harmful advances of online users who show seemingly benign interest in their lives.

The anonymity of the Internet can also present a number of difficulties for students with LD. While online, people can take on any identity or personality they choose, which makes some people feel that social norms do not apply and leads them to act in malicious ways that they normally would not.

Take online forums and chat rooms for example. These are popular locations for discussing everything from celebrity gossip to politics to a love of dogs, and can be a great place for kids and adults to find and engage in lively discussions with others with similar interests. However, because these forums are generally anonymous, they can rapidly devolve into online shouting matches and name-calling. Many online communities are moderated and make efforts to eliminate negative comments from their boards. But some online communities relish the cruel jokes, the insults, and the “trolls(opens in a new window).” A child who is particularly vulnerable or doesn’t recognize the community norms and malicious intent of a forum like this may easily grow distraught over online harassment. Many members of online communities recognize this immature behavior for what it is and ignore it; a child with low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression, however, may feel devastated and bewildered when a group of online so-called friends suddenly turns on her or uses her personal information for humiliation.

Talk about the risks and responsibilities

This is not to say that children with disabilities should not go online, or that there is nothing of value online for children. In fact, research has suggested that the opposite is true. The MacArthur Foundation’s recent study of teens’ online behavior indicates that online activity helps teens learn important social and technical skills, develop and extend friendships, and explore new and familiar educational topics (Ito, Horst, Bittanti, Boyd, Herr-Stephenson, & Lange et al., 2008). The same anonymity that may present challenges for children who struggle with social skills can also give them the opportunity to practice interactions with others in a more structured environment, the freedom to explore different aspects of their identities, and the confidence to request help with less fear of rejection (Raskind, Margalit, & Higgins, 2006).

However, the challenges that children with LD face on the Internet do mean that it is important to be aware of children’s online activities and to talk with them openly and directly about what they may encounter. These conversations are essential with any child, but of particular importance for students with disabilities.

A recent study on teens’ use of social networking sites found that over half of the adolescents whose social networking pages they reviewed posted private content and information about risky behavior including sexual activity, drug use, and violence (Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center of Seattle, 2009). Encouragingly, when a physician in the study sent teens messages through MySpace warning them about the private content they were posting online, many teens either removed the information or set their profile to private (allowing only friends to see the information). As this example demonstrates, in many cases an explicit conversation with a trusted authority figure, like a parent, a teacher, or the child’s doctor, is enough to help kids think more carefully about the personal information they make available online.

While threats to LD children’s safety may make it tempting to ban Internet use entirely, experts agree that educating children about the risks and responsibilities of online communities is the best way to keep them safe. Completely blocking access or using scare tactics are methods that simply do not work (Ash, 2009). Instead, stay involved with children’s lives and help them develop the skills they need to safely reap the benefits of the online world.

CITed. (2009). Online Safety for Children with LD. Washington DC: Center for Implementing Technology in Education. Exclusive to LD Online.

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