Long Island Behavior Analysis Conference

The Dangers of Social Media for Individuals with Autism

The Disability and Abuse Project publishes a weekly news feed of all articles that have been published in the past week on abuse of people with disabilities. These focus on intellectual and developmental disabilities. Recently there has been an increase of articles describing solicitation by perpetrators of abuse to people with autism and other developmental disabilities. All news feeds are on the homepage of disabilityandabuse.org where articles are listed alphabetically by state.

A recent article posted on 8/24/15 described how a teen with autism was asked by a man to send nude photos of herself and to meet him for sex:

EUGENE, Ore. – A 57-year-old man faces accusations he solicited nude photos from a 15-year-old girl with developmental disabilities and attempted to meet with her for sex, Eugene Police said.” He was arrested on charges of Online Sexual Corruption of a Child in the First Degree and Online Sexual Corruption of a Child in the Second Degree. “Police allege that Calvert communicated with the teen via text message and Facebook….sought nude photos from the girl and tried repeatedly to meet with her for sex.” The National Crime Prevention Council has a variety of tips, including some on Internet Safety and Social Media safety. Writer: Matt Spillane, mspillane@lohud.com.”

This report illuminates the dangers of perpetrators, whose purpose is to trick, ensnare and violate. They have a plan. Hapless social media users, however, do not “have a plan.” It is my strong opinion and recommendation, that everyone have a plan, including their parents, friends or caregivers…and use it. Plan elements include a “before-during-after” strategy. The plan (1) details what one should know prior to using social media, (2) details strategies to assess the conversation, and (3) lists what to do after receiving invitations or requests that do not fall into a category of “things you would normally do with family and friends around.”

Here it is in the words of a man with autism…his message is clear. There should be a plan for every social media user including awareness that there are people who will make requests that should not be honored, they are bad and they do not mean well (posted 6/8/15):

In the article, “Hate crimes aren’t taken seriously enough” (RichardAult, 6/8/15), Author Kevin Healey wrote that he was “…was too frightened to leave his home for three weeks” after internet ‘trolls’ found his address and threatened to chop off his legs. With 118,000 Twitter followers and 14 years of campaigning for the rights of people with autism to his credit, Kevin has become a public figure and an easy target for online bullies. The vile abuse he has received by anonymous trolls mocking his condition (both Kevin and his twin brother Shaun are on the autistic spectrum) have hardened him over the years. Kevin said, “Someone got hold of my e-mail address and managed to find out what street I lived on. I got an e-mail from this person saying, ‘I know where you live, be careful, I’m going to come and sever your legs.’” He says, “People with autism are very literal. For three weeks I couldn’t leave the house. I thought if I did I would get my legs chopped off. That was horrific.”

Kevin’s experiences of online bullying also included “…people setting up Twitter accounts impersonating me.

One person was even pretending to be me and asking for money.” Although bullied as a school student, he says, “…I think cyber-bullying is more horrific than physical bullying. If someone hits you, you might get hurt, but you can walk away. Cyber-bullying stays with you, you can’t get away from it.” In response to this bullying, Kevin notes that he “came off Twitter for a time, but I felt like I had lost my voice. It is how I communicate with the world.”

I think the words of Kevin are powerful. I believe that by listening to someone like Kevin, many will become aware not only of the pain that can be suffered, but how the risk of it can be significantly reduced by following the rules of safety while enjoying social media.

An article posted on 8/24/15 clarifies the dangers (Staff, 2015):

A Somers couple is demanding $10 million in a lawsuit against a former college professor who was convicted of forcibly raping their autistic son. Paul S. Hines, 74, was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual act, a felony, is now a registered sex offender, and was sentenced to 10 years’ probation. Their son invited Paul Hines, who had impersonated a much younger person, to their house through a social media website.

How to Stay Safe

I recommend that individuals with Autism and Asperger’s (actually all teens) design a Risk Reduction Plan to be able to safely use the internet and social media. I recommend that their parents and other caregivers including teachers and consultants, therapists, and others in their lives assist in the development of the plan as well as a monthly practice and review of the plan, making changes as appropriate to the individual’s increasing skills in discerning safe and unsafe practices. This approach mirrors the Individual Response Plans used for physical and sexual abuse (Baladerian, 2014).

It is essential to keep in mind that the rules for safety in internet and social media use are not unique to those on the spectrum, but apply to everyone using the internet. And the phone. And email. There is likely only a tiny number of folks who have never been deceived and lost money, safety or something else by trusting another person whose plan was to deceive. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this a special problem for those on the spectrum. It is a problem for everyone.

Do’s and Don’ts for Improving Social Media Safety

  1. Know that predators seek victims on social media sites.
  2. Know that you cannot trust someone you meet online to be who he says he or she is.
  3. Consider how what you are about to do feels. Does it feel a bit scary, risky, or adventurous? Does it make you uncomfortable? Who could you easily tell that you are about to do this or have done it?
  4. When you are thinking of how sharing information feels, consider if there is any risk to you. For example, if someone has asked for your address, phone number, credit card information, social security number, date of birth, etc., keep in mind that with this information you can be found, stolen from, or hurt; Not only you, but also those with whom you live.
  5. Keep in mind that just because someone asks for information, this does not mean you have to give it. In fact, think about the request. Why in the world would they want that information? What should you do? You can decline. You can provide fake information.
  6. If someone asks you to do something risqué, for example to send pictures of yourself naked or specific body part naked, do not do so. Why not? Most likely the person asking for you to do this is a predator. They do not like you. They want to exploit you. They want to satisfy their own selves. They can later use the photo to blackmail you, to threaten you into doing things you do not want to do but are feeling scared not to do because they said they’d show your photos to others and identify what you have done.
  7. If you post pictures of yourself naked or just certain body parts, or in a sexual act, those pictures cannot be “taken back.” They will be on the internet forever. If later in your life you want to get a job, you may not get the job as they might see these pictures and tell you “you showed poor judgment, so we cannot expect you to be responsible.”
  8. Do not post information that tells people you will be gone for a few weeks on vacation. Why not? Think about it. If someone online knows your address and is a robber, they might take advantage of your absence.
  9. Think about your feelings when online. If you feel something is creepy or weird or uncomfortable, get out of that site. Do not respond to others from that site. And do not revisit it. You may have positive or negative feelings while online or when a question is asked. Assess your feeling before answering. Do you feel happy, scared, excited, intrigued, regret, confident, a sense of adventure or a sense of danger?
  10. In our culture, we are taught that it is polite (nice) to answer questions strangers and others ask. Yet, some are inappropriate. They make us feel very queasy and uncomfortable. This is the body helping alert us to danger. It is essential to pay attention and get out of that conversation and away from communication with that person. This is our intuition that some are now calling our internal GPS system. Listen to the warnings. Declining to answer personal questions or providing personal information is a smart skill that we are taught as adults. How do you decline the request? You can either say no, just get offline and out of that conversation or provide fake information if you feel you cannot decline. Do not give the numbers of your friends. You can also say that you have a personal rule not to provide any important information to anyone whom you have not “vetted.” That means, someone with whom you have had enough time in person to believe that they mean well. There is never any reason to give a friend or acquaintance your social security number or banking information. If that is asked, that is a danger sign. Stop communication with that person.
  11. Another way to check how something feels is to ask yourself, how would you feel if your parent or sibling or other loved one found out what had been happening in your social media communications? Would they be proud of you? Would they approve? Ask them! They will be happy to provide guidance for you.
  12. Always decline requests for photos, phone numbers, addresses or places that you go. Check such request out with parents, or put them on a list of things to not share on social media. Do not give out your social security numbers, Medicare card numbers. When you give out any of these three sets of six digits, one becomes vulnerable to identity theft: phone number, date of birth, and social security number.
  13. Finally, remember that in our culture we are taught that it is “nice” to answer questions and respond to requests made of us. People with autism who have been trained in compliance training formats with rewards and consequences for behaving in a particular way may have a harder time breaking those rules and finding a personally empowered way to manage the rules of safety while enjoying the social benefits of social media. Better to be safe.

You can go online to search “safety rules for social media use” and find many more recommendations. As things change quickly online, check again every three months.

 

To contact the author send an email to nora@disability-abuse.com or visit www.disabilityandabuse.org.

References

Ault, R. (2015, June 8). Autism campaigner Kevin Healey: ‘Hate crimes aren’t taken seriously enough’ Retrieved December 7, 2015, from www.stokesentinel.co.uk/Autism-campaigner-Kevin-Healey-Hate-crimes-aren-t/story-26656709-detail/story.html

Baladerian, N. 2014, A Risk Reduction Workbook for Parents and Caregivers of People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Spectrum Institute.

Staff, News (2015, August 17). Police: Man asked teen with developmental disabilities for nude photos. http://kval.com/news/local/police-man-asked-teen-with-developmental-disabilities-for-nude-photos

Tips for Parents. (n.d.). National Crime Prevention Council, from http://www.ncpc.org/topics/internet-safety

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