When it comes to websites like myspace there is an innate fear that parents often succumb to without exploring the possible benefits. While there are dangers, there are also benefits, discussed below, which are too often overlooked. Many children with disabilities are socially isolated and have little opportunity to express thoughts, participate in meaningful communication with peers, or otherwise fit in with mainstream society.
This is a site that may allow these teens to do just that. Myspace is a free website that allows people to set up a profile including pictures, personal information, music, and videos, among other things. Once a profile is set up the user can share pictures and messages with anyone else who has a profile and is approved as a friend. Profiles can be set to private which prevents anyone who is not approved from viewing. Myspace is easy to use and very popular with both children and teens. The site was developed for teens and adults ages 14 and older, but it is easy for children of all ages to join. A child is best protected by a parent who educates themselves, and their children, about the risks and benefits of myspace.
Parents often view myspace as an unknown realm of danger. There is no doubt that unsupervised children can become victim to anyone from predators to bullies. Children with special needs often have characteristics that make them more prone to becoming victims. In regards to mypsace, some of these characteristics are the desperate need for friends and acceptance, unregarded trust in others, lack of ability to sense danger, and inability to follow proper social limits. Children who post personal information and are unsupervised on the internet are most at risk. Children are not only at risk for what others may see about them, but there is risk in what they print about others, as one 8th grade boy found out the hard way [Court decision (in pdf.) upholding a student's suspension from school for mock threats on his myspace site.] Threats posted online may be treated seriously, as any other type of threat, and children need to be aware of this.There are many resources which offer sensible advice to protect children.
On a positive note myspace may provide the much needed incentives for a child with special needs to take part in educational and social activities. IEP goals to improve reading and writing can come to life on a profile that a teen creates for himself to share with family and friends. Spelling, correct grammar, and keyboarding skills can all be practiced as a profile is developed, edited, and updated. Parents can send their child messages using words, grammar, or concepts reinforcing what is being taught at school with a focus on skills needed to meet IEP goals. Myspace may provide opportunites for socialization and networking that would be impossible outside of the virtual environment. Many teens feel socially isolated as a result of physical or mental disabilities. Myspace can give these teens an opportunity to be a part of the crowd. Parents, grandparents, cousins, and siblings, just to name a few, can create profiles and be friends to the socially isolated child, bringing him a sense of acceptance, importance, and connectedness to others. Family members can use the child as resource about how to do things on myspace thus giving the child a sense of being needed. Myspace can give parents unique insights into their child's friends and interests, and when executed properly parent involvement may actually bring children and parents closer together. Parents should be accepting, non judgmental, and honest when asking questions about their child's page and friends. When parents and other relatives show a genuine interest and become involved in a teens daily life it opens the door for the teen to talk about problems, ask questions, and get help from trusted adults.
A parent's best defense is to go to myspace.com and create their own page, send their child a friend request (children and teens are generally excited to lead parents through the ropes), then visit their child's profile daily and leave messages letting them know 'I've been here'. These messages can be left in a positive way, as I know a 13-year-old girl who enjoys receiving lists of all the wonderful things about her and the lyrics to a lullaby that she used to hear on a regular basis when being tucked into bed. The site also offers parents a unique way to invite kids out for dinner or a movie. As with any tool teens have access to (tv, cars, movies, phone, etc.) myspace must be used within reasonable limits and under adult supervision to keep kids safe.