Keeping Children with Disabilities Safe in a Digital World

By: Yvonne D. Anderson, LCSW, CADC, CODP II

All parents want to protect their children. And all children are vulnerable online, whether they’re using email or chatting on social media sites. When your child has a disability or developmental delay, those protective instincts switch into high gear. Identifying potential threats online is more challenging than, for instance, spotting a danger on the playground. Additionally, many children with disabilities struggle with reading social cues, managing emotions/ behavior, and making judgment calls about others. As a result, they are at a higher risk for cyberbullying and online victimization. As a parent or caregiver, you are your child’s first line of defense. Use the following guidelines to navigate the online world and keep your child safe.

Make your home network safe.

Avoidance is the best policy when it comes to sexual content, violent images, online predators, malware, and cyberbullying on the Internet.

  • Increase your security. Use updated virus protection and other safety measures, such as firewalls, to protect your computer from hackers and other cyberattacks.
  • Make it public. Keep smart phones, iPads, and computers in shared places where it’s easy for you to monitor online behavior.
  • Filter content. Install filters to block unapproved websites and images.
  • Set up parental controls. Limits can be set in multiple ways, such as through your internet or mobile service provider, directly on the device itself, and through site-specific services, including YouTube, Netflix, and Facebook.
  • Use child-friendly browsers. Some browsers are designed specifically to allow young Internet users to explore and learn without coming across offensive or dangerous content.
  • Review the browsing history regularly.
  • Disable location-tagging. A GPS-enabled smartphone or computer can reveal your child’s location through online posts and uploaded photos.
Photo by Dzenina Lukac on Pexels.com

Teach your child how to behave online.

Educating your child about appropriate online behavior is vital if you want to keep her safe no matter where she accesses the Internet.

  • Establish ground rules. Identify what is OK to do online and what activities are prohibited. When it comes to content, use the same guidelines that you employ for television viewing: if they can’t watch it on TV, they shouldn’t look it up online either.
  • Teach your child that information shared on the Internet becomes and stays public forever.
  • Review information that should not be shared. Help your child understand what types of information are unsafe to share online, such as their full name, address, phone number, school, or other images/ information that could help someone identify them. To help your child remember, post a “Do Not Share” list by the computer or on the device.
  • Explain the limits to online relationships. Emphasize that it is okay to say “No” to requests for personal information, photos, money, and joining social media networks.
  • Be smart about emails. Let your child know how dangerous it can be to open an email or attachment from someone they don’t know. Reinforce the importance of checking with you or another trusted adult if they get a message that they’re unsure about.
  • Encourage your child not to delete messages. Tell them to save anything that they’re not sure about, doesn’t feel right, or seems hurtful. Set aside time to review the messages together.
  • Explain cyberbullying, predatory behavior, and sexting. Although it may feel uncomfortable to talk about, your children can’t protect themselves from what they don’t know about. Rehearse “what to do if…” scenarios.
Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

Provide resources and support.

Children also need to know how to identify when someone else is behaving inappropriately online and what to do about it.

  • Use online tools. Websites such as InternetMatters.org or NetSmartz.org provide a wealth of resources for both parents and children. InternetMatters is a resource hub specifically designed for children with additional learning needs and their families. These sites offer tools help children learn about online dangers using role-playing, pictures, and other strategies. NetSmartz resources also include the SymbolStix safety pledge, a visual online safety contract designed with support from the National Autism Association.
  • Encourage them to trust their gut. Teach your children to be skeptical and listen to their own instincts. Use role-play to practice recognizing and responding to several different scenarios your child may encounter online.
  • Give them a lifeline. Make sure your children know that you and other trusted adults are available for them if they run across something online that makes them uncomfortable. Even if they’ve done something they shouldn’t have, it’s important for them to be able to reach out to adults they can rely on.
  • Find safe online spaces. Seek out social networks and peer support that are focused on activities and interactions that match your child’s interests and developmental level.
  • Be curious and ask questions. Find out what websites your child likes to visit. Have they ever seen something online that made them feel sad, scared, or confused? What would they do if they saw something online that made them uncomfortable?
  • Connect with your child by learning how to use the technology and social media that s/he is using. Ask them to show you how it works and specifically how they use it.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Reach out to Easterseals’ Social Services team for more ideas about how to support your child’s social and emotional development. You can contact us at socialservices@eastersealsdfvr.org.

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