I talk with parents a lot about social media. It has become so institutionalized that if you don't figure out how to navigate it, you'll get left behind. Most of us, as parents, are digital immigrants raising digital natives. Many of us are doing our best to immerse ourselves in this world so that we can guide our kids through its complexities. At the same time, we worry about our kids. We worry that the digital age is putting less value on real conversations. We worry that this digital world is not preparing our children to have significant and lasting social relationships.
So what happens when you add a child's learning issues or disabilities into this mix?
I recently had a fifteen-year-old student with Asperger’s syndrome tell me that Facebook has helped him improve his social skills. Facebook eliminates the challenges he faces of reading facial expressions or body language and gives him the time needed to think through an appropriate response. (This is also the reason he does NOT like the fast pace of Twitter.) Facebook allows him to engage at his own pace, reducing his anxiety and enabling him to enjoy the benefits of social relationships, a challenging area for children with autism spectrum disorders.
This got me thinking. The very tools that we worry may be the end of interpersonal relationships can, in fact, help those who might otherwise struggle in conventional social settings.
I recently wrote “Special Education is Good Education”. This cliché is built on the premise that the strategies for teaching and supporting students with disabilities are, in fact, just good teaching strategies for all students. So with that in mind, here are some guidelines for navigating social media with your child who has a disability, realizing that these may well be good strategies for all parents:
1. Be diligent in monitoring content
All children need supervision; no matter their age, no matter their need. During my second year of teaching, I heard a veteran middle school teacher advise a parent, "This is middle school. You may think your children are ready to be independent, but they need you now more than ever. Resist the urge to let them go." This applies all the more to social media. Know where your kids are, who they are interacting with and do not be afraid to connect with them in these same spaces.
2. Make them aware of dangers
Talk to your children about online predators. Talk to them about online bullying. Open the lines of communication. Encourage them to talk to you about anything suspicious they encounter and do not be afraid to cut them off if you notice something inappropriate.
3. Set limits
Even if these tools help your child to socialize and/or build relationships, it is not healthy to spend hours upon hours a day staring at a screen. Just as you would limit the amount of television your child watches or the amount of video games he or she plays, you should also establish limits on the use of social media.
4. Trust your gut
You know your child best. If something feels off, it probably is. Trust your instincts and don't second-guess yourself. You have to decide if an online presence is safe and beneficial for your child. And you have to decide when it ceases to be. You are your child's greatest advocate and it is your responsibility to guide, support and teach your child to advocate for him or herself. If social media can help, use it. If not, avoid it. You are still the parent.
This article is cross-posted on Disability Frontline.