Social Media Safety for Kids with Special Needs

Here are some dos and don'ts when it comes to social media safety for kids with special needs.

While social media may enhance the lives of children with special needs, it shouldn’t be viewed as a free-for-all playground. Students with disabilities are more likely than neurotypical children to find support on social media and feel better about themselves after spending time on the various apps, according to a recent report from the Ruderman Family Foundation, but there are downsides.

Students with disabilities are 1.8 times more likely to be victims and 1.7 times more likely to be perpetrators of social media-related cyberbullying, the report says.

Here are some dos and don’ts:

Do watch the time:

It’s easy to lose track of time while using social media, says Sally Borella, the vice president of clinical services at Action Behavior Centers. Some apps have time restrictions that you can set up for your child. “There’s nothing to miss out on past bedtime,” Borella says.

Do teach online safety skills:

Strangers online are still strangers. Also consider what restrictions are appropriate for your family, Borella says.

Don’t give bullies a platform:

There are plenty of trolls online, and they will attack your children. “Things can roll down a hill in a good or a bad way,” says Holly Simon, the mother of Nate, a child with Down syndrome. “Nate is smarter than he was a year ago, but he still gets harassed. It’s the nature of the beast.” One time, Simon privately confronted an online bully, who later apologized for his words. But Simon also makes sure not to let any of the trolls take advantage of her child by keeping a very close eye on whomever he interacts with.

Do have open conversations about being online:

Be curious and avoid judgments or lecturing, says Melanie Sage, assistant professor of social work at the University of Buffalo, specializing in the use of social media by marginalized youth and those with disabilities. “It’s good to be interested and conversational about what kids are looking at, whom they are speaking with and what communities they are in,” she says.

Do talking about coping skills:

Your child will need coping skills to deal with disappointment, stress, bullying and disagreements online. Also, make sure they’re aware of their privacy settings, and who can see their personal information, Sage says. Talk to your children about what to do when someone is mean to them and feel free to offer your suggestions.

Do check their social media:

“We’ll periodically check in on her phone and check her social media,” says Mollie Gryda, the mother of 18-year-old Jaden Gryda, who has Down syndrome and started using Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok a few years ago. Gryda also enlisted her daughter’s friends and school to notify her if they see anything inappropriate or odd that Jaden may be posting.

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