On a daily basis, I walk into the classroom and find my students all glued to the computer screens waiting for class to begin. Before I ask them to log-off so I can begin the class, I quickly glance over their shoulders to see what they are doing online. What I find is that a majority of my students are using some sort of social networking website. Websites like Facebook.com and Twitter.com give users the opportunity to create personal profiles, post photos, play games, and connect with friends both new and old. For those on the Autism Spectrum, websites like Facebook can play an especially important role in their social lives. It affords them the opportunity to directly message and chat with friends which, for someone with social difficulties, can be much easier than picking up a phone.
Along with the numerous benefits of social networking, there are an equivalent number of dangers also associated with it. Recently, the media has brought to light a number of these issues with some of the more publicized threats including online stalking, identity theft, and cyber bullying. To illustrate the dangers of social networking, I often share a personal story with my class in which a social network account I had was hacked (taken over without my knowledge or permission). The person who had hacked into my account began messaging my friends and asking for money that I needed quickly in order to get out of trouble I was in. Luckily, none of my friends had fallen for this trick and I was able to regain control and change the password to my account. It was my personal account that had been hacked, but I often think about what would have happened if my school account had been hacked into. I wonder how trusting my students (many of whom are on the autism spectrum) would be if someone they presumed to be me was messaging them. Would they hand over personal bank and credit card information to a teacher in need?
As a vocational counselor and classroom instructor for students with learning and developmental disabilities, I tell my students that while social networking sites can be a big help, they can also pose a true threat to an individual’s job search. In my classes, I discuss with my students the topic of networking as it pertains to the job search. However, I am very aware that networking skills can be difficult for an individual on the spectrum to master. That’s when an online social networking site like Facebook comes into play. An individual can go online and post a note to their friends that they are looking for a job. All it takes is a simple post and the word gets out to every online friend they have. In fact, a few of that individual’s friends may post a similar note in hopes of helping their friend find a job. Networking for a job in this manner is simple and may not cause the anxiety that can be created by making a phone call or having a face-to-face conversation with another person.
Beyond Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, there are social networking websites available with the specific purpose of helping people market themselves and find jobs. Websites such as LinkedIn.com provide people with a forum to post their resume, list their skills, and make connections with people in the same profession in which they are interested in working. Job recruiters will often use these sites to search through profiles and find possible candidates for job openings. Just keeping a profile on a site like this could be beneficial, as you never know who is going to see it.
As mentioned previously, with each benefit of social networking, there is an equal danger and that especially holds true when it comes to an individual’s job search. Just as human resources personnel are using social networking sites to find potential candidates for job openings, they are using these sites to screen job candidates as well. In fact, according to an article from CIO.com, the number of HR managers that used social networking sites to research potential employees nearly doubled from 22% in 2008 to 45% in 2009. These numbers are staggering and what they imply is that if an individual is not careful, something they have posted online can possibly prevent them from being hired for a job.
What we need to keep in mind is that in private and with friends, most people conduct themselves differently than they would in their professional place of work. So, what happens on social networking sites is that people conduct themselves in a manner that is congruent with how they would act around friends in private. The only problem is that if an individual is not careful, their online profile could be visible for all to see and that the hiring manager of the company that individual applied to earlier in the day might see a comment or photo that was only meant for friends.
What one hiring manager may find offensive on someone’s online profile, another may not. I instruct my students that when posting online, they should steer clear of using swear words, making comments that could be perceived as nasty or hateful, and stay away from discussing topics online that some could find controversial, like politics. I also advise my students that they need to take care in the types of pictures they post online and to stay from posting pictures that may be considered risqué or depict alcohol/substance use.
To assist my students in deciding if what they are posting online is appropriate or not, I advise that they should ask themselves one question: “Would I post this online if I knew my parents or grandparents would see it?” If the answer to this question is a “no,” it is likely that what is about to be posted online may be considered inappropriate to some and should possibly not be posted. Using a simple technique like this can mean the all the difference when it comes to landing that interview or not.
There are three other points I make to my students when speaking about social networks. The first, and maybe most obvious, is that they need to go into their social network’s privacy settings and switch on the settings that provide them with the most privacy. The second suggestion I give is that they register on the social networking sites with a different email address than which is on their resume since many of these sites allow you to search for profiles by typing in an email address. Finally, I suggest that they only allow people that they actually know to view their full profile. By following these guidelines, they make their online profiles harder to find and therefore they will be less visible to the eyes of the hiring managers that may be searching for them. These suggestions are helpful, but it is important to understand that even if every precaution is taken, resourceful individuals can find ways around these safeguards and still may be able to view a profile.
With everything that is reported in the media about social networking websites, it may be hard to see the benefits. However, it is important to consider that these sites allow individuals with autism spectrum disorders a place in which they can keep connected with people they meet in school and meet others who share commonalities. The old adage is “knowledge is power,” and that holds especially true when it comes to educating individuals on the spectrum in regards to the dangers associated with social networking and how those dangers can impact upon their lives.