In our group for adults with learning disabilities I have noticed that more and more of them are now using mobile phones. Where for years they have only had supervised access to the internet through one computer in their home, they now have access to the 24/7 online world that most of us do. So do the majority of young people with autism that I work with.
Where is the online support?
What has worried me the most is the lack of internet safety support given to them. Schools do have lessons about Internet safety and rules to abide by, but in reality these are often ignored by many young people. They are often not understood by many of the children I work with. Adults with learning disabilities don't seem to be given much guidance in this area, either.
They are often very vulnerable to:
• Finding porn by accident and pursuing it without understanding the implications or becoming very distressed by it
• Being groomed
• Befriended for money
• Being ridiculed and bullied
• Spending beyond their means
• Giving too much information away
• Giving away their location and other personal details
A friend of mine with Autism chats regularly to others in ‘Christian’ chat rooms. Thinking they are safe she shares openly and freely. Already she's attempted to get into debate with someone who said God was a child murderer. With social understanding not her strength, she didn't know that this person was inciting argument and verbal abuse. It didn't – but it could have turned out very badly.
I am quite sure that parents are terrified about the vulnerability of their naïve and socially naive children, young people and adults with additional needs. I have heard tales from parents and teachers of grooming, bullying, ridicule and sexual exploitation. It takes so much hard work to repair the damage done.
So, what can we do?
1. First we can cover them in prayer. Pray God’s protection over them and for his angels to guard their steps. Teach them to pray for themselves and ask God for protection.
2. Then, get some good resources and use them. Don't be shy about bringing the topic up and make it a condition of using the computer that they must go through the information with you and review it regularly. Share the resources with their school or adult carers. Here are two great resources that can be used for children or adults of a wide range of abilities. Symbol based internet rules and information for younger or non-readers and internet rules and information for Autism, learning disabilities and adults with learning disabilities
3. Then put whatever safety controls you can on their phone, laptop, tablet, PC and on social media pages if they use them. Most internet providers have safety controls and you need to check out what's available. Until our children left school, we always had the laptop in the hallway, where everyone walking past could see what was on it. I wanted them to get used to the fact that someone was watching. Do the research. Don't use the excuse that you're not tech savvy. Someone you know will know and you can learn.
A good guide can be found from MENCAP
4. Finally keep the conversation open and make sure they know they can talk to you about anything they are unsure about. It is good for them to learn the rules and self enforce, but you may have some children, young people and adults with additional needs who don't have the capacity to make those decisions. Keeping the conversation open does not invade their privacy, but can give them a trusted advocate to help guide them through the online world.
Enjoy the internet
And don't forget to celebrate and enjoy all that you can. From the world of Minecraft, researching your special interest, joining like minded people, accessing worship and Bible teaching - the internet can connect people to the world who might otherwise by isolated and alone. It can make us laugh and allow us to share our creativity.
If we make internet safety something we teach and monitor, there is no reason why children, young people and adults with additional needs cannot use it as the rest of us do.
Lynn McCann is a wife and mum to two young adults. She runs an autism consultancy and training business.