I am pleased to welcome Hilary Smith as a guest on Autism Mom. She offers eight tips for protecting children online which are easy to implement and can help foster positive conversations with children about cyberbullying and online dangers.

Many children, including those on the autism spectrum, rely on electronic devices not only for entertainment, but also for basic communication and strengthening social skills.

Often children with special needs find communication and forming bonds with peers challenging. Thankfully, technology has helped bridge this gap by creating less intimidating environments and allowing children to find their voices.

Although digital devices serve a purpose and meet a need, they also expose our children to a myriad of new dangers. Unfortunately, as our sons and daughters flock online, we are noticing a disturbing rise in cyberbullying and other online pitfalls when it comes to children who have special needs.

Hidden Online Dangers: The Cyberbully Threat

Growing up, many of us understood the perils of the playground bully. Fast forward and today we are discovering bullying is no longer confined to school yards. Instead, cruelty has jumped the fence and is now going digital and evolving with technology.

In fact, cyberbullying is reaching epidemic levels among our youth. Over 87 percent of our kids admit to witnessing this form of digital aggression. Cyberbullying victims are barraged with mean and degrading posts every hour, of every day, and have no way to seek refuge from the attacks.

Children who have allergies, ADHD, learning disabilities, handicaps, developmental delays, epilepsy, and even Autism are especially vulnerable, because many times our kids are already dealing with low self-esteem.

Research hailing from the “British Journal of Learning Support” discovered that “60 percent of students with disabilities reported being bullied, compared to 25 percent of the general student population.

Other reports agree with this finding, showing that children with special needs are two to three times more likely to experience cyberbullying when compared to their peers.

Tips For Protecting Children Online

Besides the increased risk of cyberbullying, our kids also face other online foes. Online predators and identity thieves are real concerns facing even our youngest digital natives.

However, our children with special needs might be more vulnerable, because they often have trouble differentiating between real friends and people who are manipulating them.

Listed below are eight ways we can protect our children:

  • Help your child set their privacy settings on all of their devices. It sounds simple, but every site and device has different settings. Encourage them to use a password on their phones or tablets and make sure a child knows that passwords are not for sharing- even with their buddies.
  • Keep technology in family living areas. Limiting technology from secluded parts of the house will reduce inappropriate activity, allow you to observe a child’s behaviors, and offer them a safe place to unplug from their devices.
  • Know who their “friends” are on social media. Encourage children to only friend people they know in the real world. For added safety, scroll through their lists and make sure you personally know the people they are connected with online.
  • Teach children the appropriate responses and reactions to handle bullies. Help our kids learn new techniques to stay calm and look for adult intervention through roleplay and discussions. By eliminating a reaction, even a digital one, you are deleting a cyberbully’s motivation.
  • Be an advocate for your child’s safety. Immediately take a stand against threats or aggression directed toward your child, because bullying cases can quickly escalate if no one intervenes.
  • Make it a point to read text messages, social media accounts, and all other digital interactions together. This is important for two reasons: you get a firsthand look at the messages and your child won’t be alone if they encounter cruel remarks.
  • Document, document, and document! If a child is being victimized online, it is vital you build a paper trail. Take screenshots, save text messages, and copy all communication to build a solid case justifying the need for intervention from authorities or school personnel.
  • Take advantage of monitoring software or programs that allow you to monitor a child’s cell phone, social media presence, and Internet activity.

[The Navigator and I also developed scripts of answers to inappropriate questions for him to use if he found himself being asked personal questions online – AM]

Raising children with special needs can be difficult at times, but we need to challenge ourselves to help our sons and daughters overcome the hurdles they face in life- even digital ones. What is one thing you will do today to protect your child online?

Protecting Children Online

Born and raised in Austin, TX, Hilary Smith is a free-lance journalist whose love of gadgets, technology and business has no bounds. After becoming a parent she now enjoys writing about family and parenting related topics. Her recent articles include Cyberbullying and Dyslexia and How to Help Your Kids Deal With Bullying.