Smart Online Tips for Parents of Children With Special Needs

April 5, 2016
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All parents want to protect their children, and when you have a child with special needs, those protective instincts switch into high gear.

It’s difficult enough to keep your child safe from harm in the classroom, cafeteria, or playground, but helping them navigate the online world where threats may be hard to identify can be especially challenging. However, with a little extra effort and preparation, you can promote safe and secure online interactions.

The Internet and children with special needs

All children are vulnerable online, whether they’re using email or chatting on social sites like Facebook and Instagram. Children with special needs face the same dangers online as other children, but they may have an even more difficult time recognizing threatening behavior. Because many kids with special needs struggle with reading social cues, managing behavior, and making judgment calls about others, they can be at a higher risk for cyberbullying and online victimization.

Over 90 percent of teenagers use the Internet, and 73 percent have social networking accounts. But despite that high usage, nearly 30 percent of parents let their children interact online with no supervision.

As a parent, you are your child’s first line of defense. It’s your job to keep your child’s online activities from leading to a real-life crisis situation. Here are some guidelines to help you navigate the online world and keep your child with special needs safe from the hazards of online harassment.

1. 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. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to protect your child from coming across these dangers on your home network.

Make it public. Keep computers in shared places where it’s easy for you to monitor online behavior.

Filter content. Install filters and set up parental controls to block unapproved websites and images.

Increase your security. Use updated virus protection and other safety measures like firewalls to protect your computer from hackers and other cyberattacks.

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.

2. Teach your child how to behave online.

You can make your home network as safe as possible, but children also go online in school, at friends’ houses, and on mobile devices. Educating your child about appropriate online behavior is vital if you want to keep them safe no matter where they access 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 look at it on TV, they shouldn’t look it up online either.

Talk about sharing. Help your child understand what types of information are unsafe to share online. Make sure they don’t post their full name, address, phone number, school, or any other images or information that could help someone online identify them. To help your child remember, post a “Do Not Share” list by the computer and give them a copy to take along to school and friends’ houses.

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. Tell them to check with you or another trusted adult if they get a message that they’re unsure about.

Explain sexting. It may be uncomfortable to talk about, but one in five teens engage in sexting behaviors, including receiving or sending sexually suggestive nude or partially nude pictures over text or email. Discuss the pressures to send inappropriate photos and the consequences of doing so.

3. Provide resources and support.

Your child’s behavior is just one part of what happens online. They also need to know how to identify when someone else is behaving inappropriately online and what to do about it. Because kids with special needs can have a difficult time interpreting social cues in real-life situations, they may need extra help navigating the murky waters of the online world.

Use online tools. Make it easy for your child to know exactly what you’re talking about with online resources like NetSmartz. These tools were created to help children learn about online dangers using role-playing, pictures, and other creative teaching strategies. NetSmartz resources also include the SymbolStix safety pledge, a visual online safety contract designed with help from the National Autism Association.

Encourage them to trust their gut. Teach your child to be skeptical and listen to their own instincts. Have honest conversations about predatory behavior, cyberbullying, and sexting so that they can recognize things that make them feel uncomfortable. Use role-playing to practice recognizing and responding to several different scenarios your child may encounter online.

Give them a lifeline. Make sure your child knows 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. The Internet can be a great place for your child with special needs to make friends without having to deal with the social situations that may make them nervous or shy. Seek out social networks and peer support that’s focused on activities and interactions that match your child’s interests and level of development.

Nothing matters more than protecting your child, both in the digital sphere and in the real world. Use these tips and best practices to create a safe, positive online experience for your special child.

Sarah Brown is a tech specialist with a love of all topics relating to the Internet of Things. She writes about upcoming technologies, Internet safety, and the world of online gaming. Sarah believes that through entertainment, technology, and the written word, we can all stay connected to each other and create a safe environment out in the ether.

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