In today’s digital era, kids are asking for social media accounts at younger ages. My 10-year-old recently asked me if he could get an Instagram account. I have to admit that I am considering it. He will be 11 soon, he loves to take pictures (and is quite the budding photographer) and promises me he will only accept his friends and cousins on his private account. I trust him, but I also trust myself to check on him frequently.
Then there's his 12-year-old brother.
As we were having this conversation, I spied my older son nearby, laughing at something he was watching on YouTube. He loves anything having to do with screens. He will be in junior high next year, and many of his friends have phones and one or more social media accounts.
When I say “friends,” I mean kids he goes to school with. Kids who have been, so far, nice to him at school. My son has high-functioning autism, or Asperger syndrome. I have to admit, I don’t trust him with social media, nor do I trust myself to know enough about how to regulate his social media use and keep him safe online.
Up to this point, I have been a helicopter mom with him out of necessity, watching him closely in all types of situations so I can coach him on social cues, body language and appropriate topics of conversation. Like many teens and tweens with ASD, he is preoccupied with television, computers and video games. He watches videos online and often has difficulty talking about anything other than what he sees in those videos. Even though he is not asking now, I know it is just a matter of time before he will want to have a social media account of his own.
This scares me for several reasons.
My son has difficulty determining when people are being unkind to him. Unless it’s blatantly obvious, he doesn’t understand the subtle teasing nuances that other kids often use, potentially setting him up for online bullying.
This past year, a new boy in his grade was being less than kind to him. Some of his classmates who have been with him for the past seven years took the new boy aside and talked to him about being nice to my son, their friend. Would they support him online like this? And would my son get sucked into bullying another child online because he can’t determine reality from fantasy?
No one is a stranger to my son. He will talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime, about anything. I could see him chatting it up with any random person online who would be willing to listen, and giving away personal information.
As much as I fear him misinterpreting what others would say to him, I fear others misinterpreting what he would say. He often says dramatic things that could be taken literally, but that he doesn’t mean literally. He’s just heard them being said. While websites’ rules for use and conduct are great at protecting people online, they can’t determine if the person violating them has special needs.
My son is working on eye contact, voice tone, posture and back-and-forth exchange. Online conversations won’t help him work on these skills. My goal for him is to be a functioning adult in society, not an internet troll in a basement. I don’t want online interaction to inhibit growth in his real-world interactions.
My son is actually pretty good about knowing when something is blatantly inappropriate; but again, the subtle innuendos will go straight over his head. Even if I do the responsible parenting things and keep his devices in the family room and apply blocks to certain sites, inappropriate content just naturally filters in. I can’t be looking over his shoulder all the time, and conversations after the fact often have less meaning for him.
So what do I do?
There is no question that social media can actually help autistic teens. Many of them find online support groups with people who are like them and can help answer some of their questions. They can interact and make friends without having to worry so much about their bodies being “socially correct.” Many ASD kids can express themselves better when they have time to compose something in writing than in on-the-spot interaction. They also have opportunities to find places online where their unique talents can shine.
There are more and more classes being held to teach autistic teens about safety and social media. I’ll be sure to ask my son’s doctors and therapists about where these are located. Though, I may not have to worry, as a 2012 study found that 64 percent of teens with ASD avoid social media, preferring solitary games and television instead. When I asked my 12-year-old if he would ever want a Facebook or Instagram account, he surprisingly responded with an emphatic “no!”
“Well, unless you were my only friend, Mom,” he said, grinning.
I’m kind of glad he’s not ready for social media yet. With more research, we should both be ready at about the same time.
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