As families grind into another school year with children spending large chunks of leisure and learning time in front of screens, parents are asking themselves about the risks and opportunities their children face online. For www.parenting.digital, Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone discuss how for parents of children with disabilities, technology offers particular promise and raises particular anxieties, as they discovered when interviewing parents from many walks of life for their new book, Parenting for a Digital Future: How Hopes and Fears About Technology Shape Our Children’s Lives.
Jonno and Sandra Stubbs had won a scholarship for their nine-year-old son Lucas to attend an expensive summer camp where he was learning games design. Lucas had recently been diagnosed with autism, and he had a tendency to fixate on friends and become overly intense – but his prowess at video games also won him their respect and admiration. When his parents had separated for a time, Jonno and Lucas played games daily – their only real way of staying connected.
Yet when Lucas got into his games he rarely knew how to stop – he would play until he had a blinding headache or would forget to use the toilet. When Sandra struggled to coax him out of his room for meals or even walks around the block, he would have “unbelievable tantrums” and sometimes physically lash out. So it might seem odd that Lucas’s teacher offered Sandra a hopeful vision, telling her:
Keep Lucas on track and you will have a lovely little computer games designer who is happy in his life.
Digital technologies are often lauded for having a special relevance for people with disabilities, especially young people with autism. Studies have shown that the properties of online communication, especially asynchronous exchanges, can relieve the pressures of face-to-face communication (though critics regard the very promotion of such a ‘workaround’ for young people with autism as perpetuating face-to-face communication as the ideal and so, in the long run, disadvantaging them).
In relation to digital skills, too, there seems a special link. Sandra was one of several parents who enthused to us about the Microsoft Autism Hiring program, hoping that Lucas’s digital interests would open a new pathway to work, for she could imagine few others. The supposed affinity between autism and technology intersects with society’s fascination with geeks – the potent stereotype of the (usually White, usually male) ‘on the spectrum’ geeky software engineer appears everywhere from the Big Bang Theory to Silicon Valley. Robert Kostas, another father we interviewed, illustrated this idea in telling us how his gaming-crazy son with autism “thinks outside the box… he’s got brilliant attention to detail.” But while successful geeks may be quirky, that’s very different from being confident that one’s quirky or geeky child will succeed in a competitive digital labor market.
Indeed, far from being an equalizer for young people with disabilities, digital technologies are accessed and experienced unequally, and present specific forms of risk. For example, Lucas, who is Black, was goaded by his older cousin into creating an Instagram profile – though his autism and age made it challenging for him to understand what that meant. At his cousin’s instigation Lucas’s first (and only) post showed him posing with his middle finger raised, with the caption ‘Bitch Ass Skills.’ Sandra was terrified at how easily he’d been led astray and made him immediately delete his account.
For parents of children with disabilities now is a good time to reflect on how technology can serve your child’s particular needs and interests, whether it might help them build new skills or join communities (in many cases through games or interest-driven learning) and when it presents undue risks. For example, although young people with autism can spend significant amounts of time with digital technologies – even more so during the pandemic – they tend to make less use of social media, and face particular problems when they do engage, struggling to assess information, or determine what to disclose and who to trust. This leaves them at greater jeopardy for online bullying or scams, and less able to obtain help. The parents of 16-year old Sana, for example, had taken away her tablet because she had a hard time distinguishing between fiction and reality – they had particular fears about someone leveraging her devotion to the Jacob character from Twilight to exploit her.
During COVID-19, parents may judge that the benefits of internet use outweigh the risk of exposure to the virus, preferring to keep their children at home and online. Now is a good time to practice joint media engagement – watching and playing together in a way that gives parents an insight into their children’s digital worlds and makes them more empathetic (and less likely to react badly) when a child gets into trouble. Building on a child’s digital interests can also be the basis for other activities – like incorporating Pokémon Go into the walk around the block. Families can support children by creating a varied digital ‘diet’ and encouraging movement during time spent online – for example, allowing time to disconnect during classroom Zoom calls if the sensory input becomes overwhelming (encouraging jumps on a trampoline) or varying a loud multi-kid call with a slow paced draw-along video.
While some families are experimenting with creative ideas, many feel on their own in facing digital challenges. Even pre-pandemic we found families with children with disabilities to be isolated, so more and better support is badly needed. Robert Kostas described trying to find advice that spoke to his particular family’s needs was:
like a fisherman trawling for a specific fish. How are you going to find the one fish that you’re looking for in an entire ocean?
Since Occupational Therapy and other specialist services are now on hold, or only partially applied in the online context, it is likely his task is now even harder.
In the rapidly evolving digital world parents must negotiate the promise and pitfalls of technology, both of which are intensified during the pandemic while limited sources of support are harder to access. In designing provision for families with children with disabilities going into another year of distance learning, we hope that educators and health professionals will also consider how to support children’s digital interests, and help them and their families avoid potential harms.
First published at www.parenting.digital, this post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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Featured image: photo by Monika Baechler on Pixabay