It used to be that students with intellectual disabilities had very little, if any, access to computers in schools, let alone to the Internet. But as classes become more integrated, especially students with mild intellectual disabilities are finding themselves exposed to a world that offers them a tremendous amount of opportunity - and, as it has with young people without disabilities, new hazards that educators and parents must consider.
As a person who's worked with youth with intellectual disabilities, I've long had concerns about social networking sites when it comes to the people I support. 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've been dismayed by what I've seen when Iíve 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 included personal information such as phone numbers on their profiles. Often they will make someone a "friend" without knowing who the person is in "real life"
Additionally, Facebook, as a general social force, causes no end of trouble, because this demographic doesn't generally have:
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, further their education, and make new friends. But safety has to be considered.
- The discernment skills to be able to determine, "I should not be "friending" this person or talking to them, because something isn't quite "right" here."
- Sufficient knowledge and skills to get out of a situation that they can't handle when their discernment skills let them down.
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 age 18. If I was the parent of a teen with an intellectual disability, I'd prefer that he or she agree to let me have their password longer than that, but I don't feel that I can't force them to keep me "in the loop" on passwords once they reach that age of adulthood. You, as a parent, may feel differently, and will have to negotiate with adult children with disabilities about whether you will have access to their passwords.
However, if you have a minor child with an intellectual disability in your life who wants to be involved with Facebook, please do the following for their sake:
You should be having these conversations with *all* your children. Social media can really broaden horizons, but you'll want to teach your kids to not take unnecessary risks and how to recognize and deal with potentially dangerous situations. However, teens with intellectual disabilities are going to need even more so than teens without disabilities simple explanations and demonstrations, repetition, practice and some supervision for a while to see that they're using online safety skills effectively. It's worth the time and effort to be sure that your teen with an intellectual disability remains safe online and gets all the benefits possible from participation on social media websites.
- If he's in school, get in touch with his teachers. Find out what he's learning about the Internet and websites like Facebook. Is he being taught about Internet safety? Is it being taught once and then the class moves on? Be aware that information this important needs repetition and reminders. What kind of Internet services are the students signing up for in computer classes (email, social media accounts, educational websites)? Are the students blocked from accessing any services from school?
- Talk to your teen. Why does she want a Facebook account? Does she know what it means to use it responsibly?
If you don't feel comfortable having your teen's password, does he know that he should come to you or another adult he trusts if he comes across a situation that he can't handle?
- Does your teen know about the Facebook features that she can use to deal with conflict with others?