Keeping Kids with Special Needs Safe from Cyberbullies

Joan Goodchild/Cyber Savvy Mom

Studies have shown that children with disabilities are at an increased risk of being bullied – and that can transfer to the virtual world online as cyberbullying is a pervasive problem these days. 

Cyberbullying is when someone intentionally uses digital media to threaten, harass, or intimidate someone. As preteens and teens of all abilities can attest, this harassment takes place through social media, chat groups, texting and instant messages. Social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat have created more opportunities for cyberbullying to potentially occur as kids often transition onto these apps during after school hours to socialize and chat. In an “always-on” digital world, it can be difficult to escape persistent harassers who go after their targets both in class and online. 

Children with a so-called  “invisible” disabilities such as a learning disability, or ADHD, OCD and Asperger's are more vulnerable to bullying. Their disability may not be obvious to peers, the way it might be for a student in a wheelchair, for example. So in these instances, these children with undetectable disabilities might suffer with social limitations and become targets for bullies who do not even realize they are harassing a disabled child. And with some conditions, the bullied child may not even understand that they are being bullied.

It is an incredibly heartbreaking and frustrating situation for both students and their parents. And it is often a challenge to get kids to share with caregivers that they are being harassed. According to UKnowKids, a provider of online safety tools for families, here are some signs to be on guard for if you think your child may be targeted by bullies.

  • Appears nervous when receiving a text, instant message, or email

  • Seems uneasy about going to school or pretends to be ill

  • Unwillingness to share information about online activity

  • Unexplained anger or depression,especially after going online

  • Abruptly shutting off or walking away from the computer mid-use

  • Withdrawing from friends and family in real life

  • Unexplained stomach aches or headaches

  • Trouble sleeping at night

  • Unexplained weight loss or gain

Katie Greer, a well-known internet safety expert and public speaker, saidthe approach to parenting when it comes to technology should vary, no matter who the child is or what their abilities may be. 

“I do think it’s important to acknowledge that technology is such a large and helpful part of all of our lives, so helping our kids learn this space is really integral to their success. I will say that some kids with certain disabilities find that connecting with people online is easier than connecting in person; with that, it’s important that parents are making sure that they’re communicating with people that they know only,” said Greer. “Parents can help their kids have a healthy and safe relationship with technology by laying down ground rules and checking in often on their activities - just like they do offline.”

Greer said with the strides and benefits seen in the disability community thanks to technology, she does not encourage parents of kids with special needs to think of online as off limits.

“It’s allowed education about these disabilities to spread, helped people raise money in certain instances, and call attention to all the wonderful things this community is doing. With that, I encourage parents of children with disabilities to think of how tech can help them and their families - whether it’s connecting with other families in the same situations, or helping to educate a larger community.”

It's always a balancing act allowing kids to use technology in a way that benefits them and does inject harm into their lives. Some common sense tips for helping your special needs child avoid cyberbullying include:

Lay down ground rules – Rules and then trust should be your first tactics. Put together a family contract for technology and make it clear where your child is allowed online. Set expectations for appropriate online content, and also be clear about what is NOT OK to visit and view (examples might include certain social media sites you are not comfortable with at their age). Also ensure you are clear about how you expect your child to act online and explain appropriate behavior when connecting with others. This is especially important for kids with disabilities that may impact the way they hear and process social cues.

Be aware – With your contract or rules in place, as we always say in the Cyber Savvy home, a conversation is your best defense. An open dialogue between you and your child about what they are viewing online and what they are observing is critical on a regular basis. Encourage them to ask questions and come to you if they are concerned about something they have seen.

Be realistic - If regular talks are not enough for your comfort level, occasionally checking your child’s device for warning signs is appropriate. Regular, intrusive stalking is not. Let your child know you will occasionally expect access to the history, sites and messages on their phone. Over-the top surveillance, on the other hand, only ensure they will likely try and skirt the rules and avoid coming to you if they do encounter a problem online.

Advise them not to respond to bullies – If your child does report they are being harassed online (or in person), encourage them not to engage with the bully. Talking to a trusted adult to get their perspective on next steps is key.

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