By Hugh C. McBride
A teenage girl who committed suicide after being harassed online. High school cheerleaders who are suspended after sending nude photos of themselves to friends via cell phone. A study that documented the extent to which teens discuss drug use on MySpace.
Social networking sites have been in the news a lot lately, but few of the headlines have been of much comfort to parents whose children spend any amount of time online. For those whose children are already struggling with challenges such as Asperger's Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD), or high-functioning autism, worries and fears about online activities may be particularly acute.
Thankfully, help is at hand.
Log On & Learn
Talisman Programs, one of the nation's leading providers of summer camps and semester-length educational opportunities for special-needs students, is launching a series of interactive online seminars to help parents navigate the murky waters of Internet social networking sites.
The first of these online webinars, "Facebook, My Space, My Child, Oh My," is set for Wednesday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Enrollment is limited to 25 participants per session, and registration is already underway.
According to Aaron McGinley, who is leading Talisman's online outreach effort, the Internet forums will explain how social networking sites work, and will provide parents with insights into the risks and benefits of popular sites such as Facebook and MySpace. They will also allow parents to ask questions and discuss issues related to raising special-needs children in an increasingly networked world.
"A lot of parents have been calling us with two questions about their kids and the Internet," McGinley said. "They want to know how they can keep their kids safe online, and they also want to learn how to make online social networking a positive experience for their children. These webinars will help answer both of those questions."
The first Talisman webinar will focus on the following five topics:
"These are going be live, interactive discussions, where parents can get hands-on instruction in exactly how the technology works," McGinley said. "They'll see me log onto a sample Facebook profile, we'll give them advice on what to do and what to watch out for, and they'll be able to ask questions and get immediate feedback."
For many young people with ADHD, Asperger's, and related conditions, social networking sites can present both a world of possibilities and a range of potential problems. And because the technology is relatively new, parents may have trouble understanding how to deal with the struggles their children are having in their online activities.
"Parents of special-needs teenagers can often draw on their own experiences when their kids are having problems making friends or dealing with difficulties at school," McGinley said. "But these parents didn't grow up with Facebook or MySpace, so the challenges their kids face there are unfamiliar to them."
The Talisman webinars, McGinley said, will help parents become more familiar with social networking sites, and will also provide them with specific strategies for making their children's online experiences safe and productive.
Maximizing Safety, Minimizing Risks
"A lot of our students struggle with skills such as reading social cues and interpreting nonverbal body language, so it's natural for them to be attracted to some of these online social networking sites," McGinley said. "It can be a bit easier for them to communicate online, and also it's a big part of mainstream youth culture. It's something that almost every kid is doing these days."
But the enticements and opportunities that are offered by the online world are accompanied by many of the same challenges that special-needs children face in many of their daily interactions.
"Our kids typically have trouble understanding social rules," McGinley said. "Well, there are a separate set of social rules on the Internet, and failing to understand them can lead to some serious problems."
For example, McGinley noted, children who are prone to taking risks and making poor choices about who they associate with offline are apt to behave in a similar fashion online. But because users are often unable to control or remove images or information once they have uploaded it, the consequences of posting an embarrassing photo or sending an inappropriate message can be exponentially worse than making a social mistake in a real-world environment.
"We're going to help parents set limits and guide their children in a way that minimizes conflict and maximizes the kids' ability to have a positive online experience," McGinley said.
Making Connections, Overcoming Isolation
In addition to learning specific skills related to online safety, parents who participate in the Talisman webinar will also have the opportunity make connections, ask questions, and share stories with other parents of special-needs children.
"For anyone who's feeling a bit isolated, our webinars will be great opportunities to talk to parents who are dealing with the same issues that you're dealing with," McGinley said. "You don't have to be the parent of a Talisman student to participate."
About the Experts
McGinley, who has been working with special-needs children in residential treatment facilities, group homes, and hospitals for more than a decade, will be co-hosting the Feb. 25 webinar with Dr. Robin Kowalski, a professor of psychology at Clemson University and one of the nation's leading experts in online social media and cyber-bullying.
"Dr. Kowalski is a recognized expert in this field, and we believe that her input and assistance will help to get our webinar series off to a great start," McGinley said. "The people who participate in the Feb. 25 webinar will be able to learn from one of the leading voices in the field of social networking and cyber-bullying."
Following the Feb. 25 webinar, Talisman plans to host four online forums each month. For more information or to register for the Feb. 25 session, call (888) 458-8226 or e-mail email@example.com.