Many of us enjoy the benefits of being online. We connect with people from all over the world, we pursue our interests, we are entertained, and we can learn about any topic that we are interested in. Our autistic children and teens benefit as we do from the online world; however, our youngsters can be more vulnerable to cyber threats such as predators, pornography, and bullying if they do not understand the dangers, and if they do not establish and use internet safety skills.
Why Older Autistic Children and Teens Use the Internet
We can help our older autistic children and teens obtain better safety online by understanding their internet preferences and what they gain from being online.
Screen usage by autistic youth, as described by RDI® Certified Program Consultants Kat Lee and Blair Armstrong in the video Screen Addiction and Autism, is often a means of escaping and coping.
Autistics love patterns and routines. They thrive when things in life feel static. They like social media and gaming because there is a pattern to it that feels stable. And they enjoy the visual stimulation. Internet use is a way to avoid the dynamics of the real world – the world that is often socially and emotionally challenging.
The study, Online Behaviors of Teenagers on the Autism Spectrum, credits the internet as a source of connections and support for teenagers on the autism spectrum. The teens reported a preference for online communication when discussing personal issues such as dating, relationships, or personal problems, as opposed to talking face-to-face.
If your older child or teen seems to spend a lot of time online, the study Comparison of Social Media Use Among Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Non-ASD Adolescents may hit home with you. 35% of the autistic adolescents studied were found to spend more than five hours per day on social media compared to 18% of non-ASD adolescents.
Whether the cause is poor judgment, too much trust, or more time spent online, the study also indicated that autistic teens are twice as likely to fall victim to cyberbullying compared to their peers without ASD.
Ways to Keep Your Older Child or Teen Safe Online
Kat Lee and Blair Armstrong agree that parents need to be very careful when making changes, such as limiting online exposure, to help the youngster emotionally regulate. Rather than “pull the rug from under the (child), gradually make the change(s)…and include (the youngster) in the process because it empowers choice-making and self-regulation.”
Here are key ways to help your autistic youngster remain safe online:
As a parent, preparedness involves being diligent with monitoring and enforcing the internet rules and boundaries that you set. Awareness of your youngster’s internet usage is vital to their safety.
Teaching your child proper internet usage and ensuring that they are aware of the dangers that can come from being online, will decrease the chance that they fall prey to any unsafe aspects of the online world.
Rules and Boundaries
Set time limits for your child’s internet usage. For example, no internet before breakfast, and no internet two hours before bedtime. Set exact time limits and post them on a visual schedule.
Place the computer that your child uses in a common area where you can easily supervise.
As your teen grows older, you may allow them to take their phone to their bedroom but continue to set time limits with that as well.
Model the time limits that you set for your child through your own internet habits.
Most devices include parental controls which will restrict content and access to undesirable sites on the internet. Ensure that each device that your child uses is set with password-controlled age-appropriate usage restrictions.
Parental control apps allow your child some freedom to browse the internet, but will filter, monitor, and manage the websites, as well as set usage time limits that you are in control of. Consider looking for a parental control app that provides tracking of calls and internet usage, chats, search history, and social media usage.
Smart Online Usage – Teach your child the basic rules of smart online usage:
- Never give out personal information (such as an address, phone number, school, or workplace location)
- Use an online name that is not your real name
- Only become friends with people online that you know in person and trust
- Set your profile and social media settings so that only your friends can see your profile, as well as your posts and updates
- Use self-control before saying anything online. What we post or say online can stay there forever.
- Never open links or attachments (in emails, messages, or on websites) unless you know the person, trust them, and are expecting the attachment from them. Clicking on ‘unknown’ links can lead to inappropriate and dangerous sites on the internet and can open your device up to malware that can immediately cause damage or collect personal information.
- Never send pictures to a person that you do not know (especially ‘private’ photographs)
Inappropriate Behavior and Fake People (Safety Steps) – Most of us have experienced fake profiles on social media. Our friends get hacked and it can be difficult to figure out who the real person is. Explain to your youngster that people, places, and things online may not be real. Fake profiles and entire websites are used to draw people in and manipulate them.
Set up guidelines for your youngster to use if they encounter inappropriate behavior, fake people, or any online situation that does not feel right. Explain to your child that if something makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe (i.e., asking for personal information, bullying, saying or posting inappropriate things), something is likely wrong and they should follow precise steps, such as:
- Take a break from the device – do not respond and step away!
- Find a trusted adult (i.e., a parent or a teacher)
- Tell the trusted adult exactly what happened, so that they can report the issue and properly block the person
Cyberbullying – A youngster that loves to connect online can easily become a target of cyberbullying. Teach your child what online bullying can look like and encourage your child to tell you if they encounter anything that resembles bullying.
Cyberbullying can occur in messages, emails, social media discussions/posts, and more.
Bullying can include online gossip, humiliation, threats, sharing your information without permission, or stalking. Online bullying can lead to in-person harassment.
Bullying can lead a person to feel ashamed, depressed, and anxious. Bullying is a serious issue that can lead to mental health issues.
You Are Not Alone
Everyone wants to feel safe online. We want our children to enjoy the benefits of the internet. As a parent, we must be diligent in our efforts to keep our children safe, but parenting in the online world is not easy.
You are not alone in this struggle. The RDI® Online Learning Community can give you the support and resources your family needs.
The Community offers the most up-to-date autism research and exclusive RDI® tools, resources, articles, and presentations, as well as support from real people – RDI® professionals, adults on the autism spectrum, and other parents just like you.