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Protecting Your ASD Child From Cyberbullying

Published on 06/24/2024
protecting your asd child from cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is a threat to all children, teenagers, and young adults, but those with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) are at higher risk.

According to Autism Parenting Magazine, cyberbullying is:

“...an advanced form of old-fashioned bullying which most people have faced to some degree. It includes all forms of digital devices and supports online communication via social media messengers, emails, or simple instant SMS. Cyber-bullying is expressed in the form of finding out, sending, sharing, posting, even blackmailing false and harmful personal details to embarrass and humiliate someone else.”

Because most children with autism are challenged in the areas of communication or reading social cues from their peers, they don’t always know when they’re being bullied until things have gone too far. 

If your child is already a victim of cyberbullying, Click Here to connect with cyberbullying helplines and resources for more immediate solutions.

Steps You Can Take To Protect Your ASD Child From Cyberbullying

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect your child with ASD from cyberbullying.

Control their technology as long as you can

The research is clear that technology is not necessarily our children’s ally when it comes to building confidence and healthy social interactions. Yet, for non- or barely-verbal children or children with ASD (and their families), the digital world may be the only place your child feels like s/he is on a level (or advanced!) playing field. It can feel like a lifeline.

So, while totalitarian restrictions aren’t necessarily the answer, do take a big-picture approach to what digital/online access makes the most sense for your child and their abilities.

Don’t offer what they haven’t asked for

There’s no need for a child to have a standard smartphone or social media access AT ALL until they are a certain age. Consider joining the ranks of parents taking the Wait Until 8th pledge, protecting their children as long as possible based on the latest research.

In the meantime, don’t give your child something they haven’t asked for yet. The longer you hold off on offering them access to platforms most prone to bullying (like social media), the more time they have to learn about and develop the skills necessary to be a good online citizen - and notice when someone else is violating the healthy social codes.

Consider a Gabb Phone instead of a normal smartphone

If your child is in middle school or higher and wants the majority of the benefits of a smartphone, consider getting them a Gabb Phone

Gabb phones are Android phones that look just like everyone else’s and allow phone calls, texts (with pictures/videos, and video calls with parents/caregivers and other Gabb phone users. However, they do not allow online search access or social media channels.

Gabb has done a great job of offering lots of safe apps, too:

  • Educational apps
  • Games
  • Language learning apps
  • Video connections (with other Gabb users)
  • Music App (with only clean music) 
  • Map apps (with tracking)
  • And more

Another benefit is that Gabb phone technology automatically removes any texts that include swear words, sexual words/innuendo, pictures that hint at any amount of nudity, and other questionable content. These “blocked” texts go directly to the parent’s Gabb app so you can read them and know who’s saying what. 

Weeding out potentially harmful texts provides an automatic window into prospective cyberbullying so you can nip it in the bud. PLUS - those texts also give you real-world examples to show your child so they can begin distinguishing which “friends” or peers are sending unfriendly or harmful messages.

Teach them about cyberbullying

Just as we teach ASD children about stranger danger in age-appropriate ways, it’s also essential to teach them about cyberbullying if they are operating in arenas where that is a threat.

More schools are providing courses like CyberCivics, which includes lessons on cyberbullying. Does yours? If not, look for online resources that your child can use so that you don’t have to be their teacher. Doing the course beforehand (or along with them) provides a wonderful foundation for shared languaging and “rules” around healthy online interactions. You may also want to team up with other parents and peers to split the cost.

NOTE: Children with high-functioning ASD have the highest risk of being bullied online. They are often more social than their counterparts, and their peers may not realize they have ASD, making them more prone to prey on your child’s misunderstood eccentricities.

Create Green, Yellow, & Red messaging categories

Once your child understands CyberCivics basics, create guidelines using traffic light signals Or a code that would resonate with your child. For example:

  • Red light: Messages that are obviously harmful, hurtful, risky, or inappropriate. These messages should be shut down, blocked, or brought immediately to a parent or trusted adult for review. 
  • Yellow light: This may be just a normal tease or typical tween/teen interaction, but there is some cause for question and alert. They should bring it to a trusted adult OR see if the messages shift from yellow to red and then cease the interaction.
  • Green light: Friendly, fun, and safe.

Using role play with “pretend” texts or messages is a great way to help your child decipher which messages may not get the “green light” in terms of friendliness or kindness. 

Protect and monitor the digital life of your ASD child from cyberbullying without invading their privacy

This is not easy for parents, but ultimately the goal is to monitor your child’s online life without completely invading it. 

  • Use age-appropriate online filters on gadgets. Set these to the age you feel makes sense for your child. For example, many 16-year-old children with ASD may still be best served by internet/parent control filters set at a 10- 12-year-old level.
  • Limit gadget use outside of a trusted adult’s presence. Keep gadget use in common areas and places where trusted adults are readily acceptable so you can keep your finger on the pulse of their moods, reactions, etc. If they are allowed to use tech in their rooms, set timers for check-ins so they can’t go into any rabbit hole for extended periods.
  • Keep digital interactions between a trusted group. Depending on your child’s age and needs, they may be perfectly content to keep online social interactions limited to “trusted” friends, family, and other contacts, which you can review with them. 
  • Do cursory checks of their history and contacts. Again, there’s a fine line between monitoring and invasion of privacy. Do review their website history, and scan chats or social media channels for any signs of red flags, but don’t be so snoopy that you know every detail of their life. That’s not fair.
  • Limit their time online. We get that it’s easier to keep a child occupied and entertained using digital technology. However, the more time they spend online, the more risk there is of unhealthy internet use or cyberbullying. Work as a family to create daily schedules that keep children moving, outdoors, and participating in directed activities, which automatically keeps online time to a minimum.

Let Autism Response Team Help Your Family Create Healthy Cyber Plans

The Autism Response Team is here to support the whole family. Using applied behavior analysis, we learn all we can about your child and your needs and then craft tailored plans that support healthy and successful interactions at school, at home, and in social environments.

We can work with you to help you, and your child with ASD learn how to steer clear of dangerous online interactions as well as what to do if they become a victim of cyberbullying. Contact us to schedule a consultation.

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