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The internet is a place for learning, playing games, socializing, and getting news. It’s part of the fabric of life. As such, it’s not realistic to ban access. While there are so many benefits to the internet, we also need to consider the risks. Some of the dangers are bullying, exposure to inappropriate content, privacy breaches, scams, and other online enticement and exploitation that can lead to face-to-face meetings and victimization. In addition, screen time addiction is big concern for many families. These are all scary things to think about, but we can significantly decrease risk by:
- Keeping open communication with your child about what they are experiencing
- Monitoring activity
- Choosing content
- Setting strict but reasonable rules
It’s vitally important to engage your child about their internet use and to encourage their input on the rules and restrictions. We teach our children about how to stay physically safe and healthy. We now need to teach social and emotional health as well. Take time every month to dialog with your children about apps they are using and their experiences on the internet. A great tool to help start the conversation is a Family Media Agreement. It’s a checklist of rules and consequences for online behavior. These rules can be great conversation starters. For example, “I will not share my location without my parents’ permission” is a great way to talk to your child about what the dangers are and to gauge their understanding of the risks. Talking about reasonable screen time limitations can help the child work on self-monitoring skills that will yield a lifetime of benefit. It cannot be stressed enough that you need your child’s input and buy in on this agreement.
There are lots of apps and products to help you guide and monitor your child’s use of the internet, and we will discuss those, but the real goal of this article is to help you help your child learn to make better decisions about what they do and who they communicate with on their devices.
A good first step is to review your security and password management strategies. It’s extremely important to have strong passwords and there are many products that can help keep track of them. Products like Dashline, Keeper, LastPass, and Net Nanny can do this for a nominal annual fee. You should also enable 2 step verification whenever possible. There are many hardware and software options, and they change quickly so your best bet is to see what is available currently. A quick online search will help you locate the most up-to-date offerings. Regardless of what security systems you have in place, avoid using public Wi-Fi like at the airport. It’s important to know or have access to the passcode to your child’s devices and check them at random times. There are different strategies for doing this depending on the age and ability of the individual.
Next, guide your child to good content. To educate our children we must first educate ourselves. Not all apps are created equal. Look for apps that are fun and feed their curiosity at the same time. Ask your child’s teacher for recommendations and set up notifications that let you approve or block apps from being downloaded. Always be on the same apps as your kids and search for hidden apps or those that may have been purchased and downloaded without your knowledge. You can do this on an iPhone by opening the App Store on your child’s device. Then click on their profile in the top right corner and select “purchased.” All purchased apps will be listed.
Once you have decided with your child what they will have access to, work on how much actual screen time they will have. Most devices will provide activity reports so you and your child can see how much screen time they are using and together you can come up with realistic limitations that meet your needs and theirs. If screen addiction is getting in the way of the individual’s ability to learn, you may need the help of a behavioral consultant to address it. Check with the school or other service provider to get an evaluation and develop a plan. One strategy is to use the penny method. Give the child 10 pennies a week, each representing 30 minutes of screen time. Allow the child to spend them however they want but they are gone, screen time is finished until the next week.
There are some additional rules to consider in the physical world that will really help with all the concerns in the cyberworld. We have talked a lot about time on devices, but what about a place for devices? For starters, there should be no devices at the dinner table (this includes parents). We need to make space for real life communication and social skills. Secondly, devices and chargers should not be allowed in the child’s room. They should be in places where you can monitor and where they can easily approach you if they do have questions or concerns. There should be no devices after an agreed upon time at night. While you want your child’s input, remember, they do not own the device, you do. When time is up, turn off or lock the device. Two more non-negotiable and very important rules are: 1. No meeting anyone from social media/internet in real life (IRL) and tell a trusted adult immediately if it’s even suggested. 2. No sharing personal information with anyone and never, ever give anyone money or access to your accounts.
Finally, if your child has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) include goals for safety on the internet. These goals and objectives will be based on your child’s individual needs and level of independence. Individuals with autism often want friends. They want to fit in but may lack the social skills to navigate friendship. This can make them vulnerable targets for bullying and worse. For children who are more independent, you may want to include strategies like role playing different scenarios of safe and unsafe behavior and talk about them. For some individuals, social stories, scripts, or narratives can help to reinforce ideas about safety while using the internet. Netsmartz has free teaching materials for grades K-12 which families and students can use to create a dynamic and engaging internet safety curriculum.
Keep in mind how varied the spectrum is and that while some autistic individuals need a lot of support in many areas and may have limited language and self-help skills, they can still be very savvy about using devices and surfing the net. Their interests may be benign and innocent, but they can still inadvertently access inappropriate things even when searching for g-rated materials. Parental control software and kid safe search engines can be very helpful along with bookmarking age-appropriate websites. Regardless of where your child falls on the spectrum, let the school/IEP team know that social media/internet safety is a priority and needs to be addressed.
For better or for worse, technology is a big part of all our lives and many autistic individuals in particular are drawn to the use of devices. They can be a source of entertainment, learning, and even language development, but they can also be the source of great anxiety and even victimization. Parents and educators need to be vigilant so that problems can be avoided and if something does happen, you can act quickly to address the situation. Remember, this is a team effort. Teaching individuals with autism the skills needed to identify risks and protect themselves is key in keeping them safer and preparing for adulthood.