One concern of the COVID-19 pandemic is the ever-increasing time our children are spending online and the potential loss of innocence due to internet activity. With virtual learning a daily part of their lives, it’s easy for our children to be sitting in front of the computer as many as 8 hours a day, especially if they already have an interest and love for gaming.
As parents, we are tasked with maintaining appropriate screen time limits but also ensuring our children are safe in cyberspace.
It goes without saying that children and teens on the autism spectrum tend to thrive on structure, boundaries, rules, and visual reminders in most situations. We can use those same supports to make a plan and keep them safe online.
Remember, the deficits in communication and social skills make it even more critical that explicit instruction be given to our children on how to appropriately interact online. Even more imperative are the instructions on how to protect the privacy and safety of the individual and their family.
Ideally, we’d set our children up for success from the beginning by implementing rules and guidance before handing them a device. However, it’s never too late to establish a routine and plan if they are already online and have already strayed into unwanted territory. If this is the case, it will be important to have a detailed discussion and prepare them for any changes BEFORE those changes are implemented. Help them understand why you’re setting rules around internet behavior. Explain that it’s your job to keep them safe and you can be held responsible for their actions. It can be helpful for the child to understand that they could get you in trouble too.
Steps to consider:
- First, make sure that all devices your child uses are set up with limits regarding what content he/she can access. Usually this entails making adjustments to the device’s settings as well as the internet browser or app being used. Consider using specific monitoring apps like Qustodio.
- However, it will be important to not just restrict access but to explain or show your child what is and is not appropriate because these settings aren’t always foolproof. These conversations will be teachable moments to help him or her identify inappropriate content if they encounter it on their own.
- Set up the rules and expectations early on. It’s easier to set these early on rather than reining them in later. Let your children know you will be monitoring their internet usage and what your expectations are. Write these expectations down and create an internet contract. Let them know the consequences for not following the contract and the rules. Your contract should include the rule that all passwords should be known by you and setting the devices so passwords can’t be changed. Another rule to consider is how much time will be allowed and when.
- Next, you must follow through and periodically check content, chat, and messages. I know this will be hard to believe, but the boundaries and rules will help your child thrive under these circumstances. My 15-year-old son expects and actually wants me to hold him accountable (even though he has a hard time admitting it). Knowing I am going to check on his activity and hold him accountable actually helps him feel safe and secure.
- Think specifically and in detail about what you need to teach your child about how to interact with others online. For example, it may be hard for some children to understand that not everyone is who they say they are online. Make sure your child/teen knows that anyone can post a picture of a young boy/girl and actually be an adult. Teach them to approach online interactions with caution because the reality is not everyone tells the truth. Explain “grooming” and consider finding examples and showing them how child predators talk to children.
- Be explicit and detailed about identifying information that is not to be shared online. Write it out as a visual. Make a poster board of the rules and have it near their devices.
- Role play! Practice! It is the best way to test their knowledge and educate them on devious yet innocent ways, people on the internet are able to get information without directly asking. The best learning exercise and eye opener for my son was when I role played as his “16- year-old friend.” We texted each other from different rooms and I pretended to be his “friend” who asked him questions like: “Hey, does your mom let you….” “My mom is a teacher, what does your mom do?” “Do you ever go to the bowling alley?” “I live right next to the school, so I walk to school. Where do you live?” “My mom works late so I am able to stay online. What does your mom do? What time does she get home?” We talked through the ways this information could be used.
- Make sure your child/teen knows the permanency of all he/she posts online. Just because he/she deletes it does not mean it’s gone. Show him/her that messages and pictures can be saved and posted later without his/her permission. Once it’s out there in the world wide web, it’s out there forever. There is no taking it back and the consequences can be life altering when applying for jobs or trying to get into colleges.
- Post visuals near the computer or in the area that internet usage is allowed. Make a simple and concise “rules” visual. Consider having rules about who they can chat with and what information is and is not allowed to be shared. You might consider adding the line, “Would I be comfortable if my mom read this or saw this picture?” Make a visual with comeback lines or strategies to stop a conversation they can use if someone is asking for explicit information or pictures. Teach them what to say in uncomfortable situations. And teach them how to report it to you or to another adult.
- If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! Another excellent way to keep your children safe is to ask questions, learn about their interests, check out the websites they visit, watch them play games, or even try playing the games with them. What better way to test the game’s appropriateness and help keep the lines of communication open between you and your teen?
For More Information:
Bobbi Wells, an Autism Resource Specialist in the Eastern region, can be reached at 252-722-2058 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Tags: autism, autism asperger parenting tips, autism behavior, autism communication, autism education, autism resources, autism safety, autism social skills, autism support, online safety