"Discuss, monitor, and educate."
That's Kortney Peagram's advice to parents and teachers who want to help special needs teens lead an online life. She wrote up some of her experiences as a psychologist working to reduce cyberbullying in Chicago for our friends at NPR's All Tech Considered.
Students can definitely benefit from social media, Peagram says. For kids who can't be touched, or who can't look people in the eye, digital networks are a chance to share pictures and interests, and an opportunity to have a social life.
But the internet can be a dangerous place, especially for kids who may struggle with communication.
Here are some guidelines Peagram recommends for parents and teachers to help kids stay safe online:
Create a list of clear and concise rules.
Teachers can make a "classroom contract" for kids regarding social media use. It should be five rules or less — anything more is overwhelming. Each rule should have one clear, short sentence, followed by a description that fleshes things out with images and examples.
One key rule? Keep private things private. Peagram walks her students through different settings in the real world: their bedroom, the bus stop, the classroom. Even if they are sitting in their bedroom, she tells them, they shouldn't do things online that they wouldn't do at the bus stop.
Peagram also tries to help them recognize potentially dangerous situations, like sexting.
"They're embarrassed, but they don't know why they should be embarrassed," she explains. To help them understand, she draws on the recent Pixar film, Inside Out, using the emotion characters to explain the sadness and disgust feelings that might come from posting nude pictures. She uses the analogy of a photocopier to explain how those pictures might spread.
Structure the time your child spends online.
There are worries that young people are addicted to social media, and for students who may lack impulse control or other social outlets there's a strong possibility their screen time could develop into a compulsion.
Peagram suggests that teachers (and parents) build a couple of blocks into the day for phone use, and limit social media to those times.
In her classroom, she uses phone checks as a reward. If a student completes their worksheets and does all their activities, then they get a five minute phone-use period at the end of class.
Ultimately, she recommends device use three to five times a day, for 5-30 minutes at a time. At home, she suggests phones be kept and charged in a common area, so kids don't bring them to bed and lose sleep online.
Overall, consistency is important.
Whatever the rules and the schedule are, Peagram says, stick to them.
Special education teachers shouldn't promise that there will be 5 minutes of phone time at the end of class, and then not give that time.
"It's hard for them to understand and breaks down the trust."
Parents and teachers should also try to model behaviors. Not all kids understand why a parent can do something that they can't — say, follow and like a bunch of strangers' Instagram posts — but it's especially confusing for kids with special needs.
And repetition is key. In her classroom, Peagram will make songs and games about her social media rules, to make sure that they are remembered.
Monitor accounts and understand the sites your kid is using.
Some experts recommend limiting special needs students to safer sites with moderators and filters, but Peagram says that isn't necessary.
Those sites tend to be more child-oriented, she says, and aren't suited for the teenagers she works with. "They like to talk about clothes and boys," she says, "They're as drama fueled as any teen. But sometimes they don't have the processing ability."
Filters can also limit self-moderation, so students won't learn what they can and can't talk about. "If you don't teach them the right skills, they'll never learn them," Peagram says.
Still, the automatic privacy filters on an application like Instagram are very different from the filters on Facebook, so adults need to familiarize themselves with any website or app that their kid uses.
Parents and teachers can monitor a students' circle of friends for clear warning signs, like big age differences, accounts that seem fake, or people posting inappropriate material.
Behavior can also be a red flag. If a kid is more aggressive, or using inappropriate words that they didn't learn in school, it might have something to do with their online experience.