The Internet: Friend or Foe?

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Recently, we had something happen to us, and we just had to share it.  If you’ve been reading our blog, you know our three kids are all on the autism spectrum.  This means they have trouble picking up social cues. 

The other day, I walked into our kid’s room and they were watching something on YouTube via the Apple-TV (Awesome thing to get for them, by the way, if you’re up for getting one.  You don’t have to worry about inappropriate commercials or promos for shows that aren’t okay for them to watch.  It also gives you the history at a glance of the last several shows without you having to go through it one by one).  

Before I could see what it was, they quickly turned it off.  Naturally, like any parent, my suspicion was piqued.  I turned the TV back on, went to the history and was able to figure out it was just an episode of the Disney Channel series, Lilo and Stitch.  Perfectly okay for a 10-year-old to be watching.  I asked Kennedy why she turned it off she said, “Because I didn’t want to get you mad.” 

[Read: Online Safety for Children]

After talking to her some more, I figured out that we had scolded her for watching something awhile back.  Given that we had suspected much worse, this threw us both for a loop.  Every parent is worried about what their kids are doing online because, obviously, there is a lot out there they aren’t ready to see.  We all use the Internet for everything.  It’s not like it’s going away… and honestly, I don’t want it to.  I still shudder from memories of microfiche in the library.  I’m totally okay with not going back there.  

Fortunately, our oldest is only 10, so they’re all still young enough that we don’t have to worry about them searching for bad things, just accidentally finding them.  So, at least we have a little time left.  Their searches are purely innocent kid searches like Phineas and Ferb for our son Alex or Dora the Explorer for Bella. But, as we discovered, some jerk out there dubbed over the dialogue of a Dora episode. Now she swears and talks about using heroin and being hung over – things my 7-year-old doesn’t need to hear.  How do I explain there are just schmucks and perverts out there (don’t even mention the scary ones yet) that think it’s funny to show stuff like that to kids?  And we all know parental controls are a bit of a joke – even the ones that work constantly have to be updated.  Why? Because, the kids and content providers are constantly figuring out ways to get around them.

Even the Best Software Won’t Kid-Proof Your Computer

We talked to a tech-guru friend who told us, yes you can program something that will record every website they go to and blah, blah, blah… Uh, he lost me after “Yes.”  I asked my friend, would all this techno stuff prevent them from seeing stuff online we don’t want them to? His answer, “No. Even the best age/content restriction software isn’t foolproof.”  But, he added, “at least you’ll know everything they’ve seen.  It’s kind of like building a dam, even the best ones leak a little.” 

Unfortunately in this case, a leak means the damage is done and unless we know about it, we won’t know to block it.  Here’s the bottom line, if you have a computer and the Internet, your kids have access to everything you don’t want them to see. Now we have a problem to figure out.  It’s either turn off the Internet, which isn’t going to happen, or spend countless hours combing through pages and pages of sites the kids have visited to see if any of them might have stuff they shouldn’t be seeing.   Who has time for that?

State the Rules and Talk to Your Kids

What’s the solution? Getting mad at them certainly won’t work.  Even though they have autism, they’re savvy enough to hide something.  They may not know why they’re hiding it, but they know to hide it. So what to do? We instituted a rule.  We told the kids that they can watch YouTube and use the Internet, but when we walk into the room or ask them “What’ya looking at?” they have to show us. We also told them we may say, “No, you need to watch something else.” 

[Read: Mom's Internet Safety Cheatsheet]

At least this way, we can talk to them about what they’ve seen and explain why they shouldn’t be watching it.  It’s not a perfect solution, but at least there is communication and the chance of us discovering something is much more likely.  It’s something to think about.  Before you say it, not getting mad does not mean there are no consequences. 

Stay Calm

With every kid, including kids with autism, the more you freak out, the more they want it.  Remember when you were a kid?  When Mom and Dad went crazy – half the time you looked anyway because you wanted to see what all the fuss was about.   The other half of the time you did it just because nobody likes to be yelled at.  Most of our idiotic actions in our teenage years come from someone telling us to not do it.

There’s something important that we put in our book, Navigating Autism: The Essential How to by Parents for Parents (available at amazon.com; sorry, we have to do that our agent gets cross with us).  Here it is: consequences don’t need to be negative or extreme to get your point across. 

Don’t Make Rules You Can’t Follow Through

Why do many of the penalties we impose as parents fail? Answer: we don’t follow through.

Why don’t we follow through on something so important?  Lots of reasons, but mostly because the penalty wasn’t realistic to begin with. 

For example, Kennedy was acting out against our nanny and really gave her a hard time.  As a consequence, the nanny told her, “no computer for the rest of the night.”  That may seem reasonable in theory, but it went wrong for two reasons:  

1. She clocked out at 6 p.m. but she forgot to tell Andy so he didn’t know to enforce the consequence.

2. This was during the school year and Kennedy has homework assignments to complete that require the computer. 

You’re better off if you make them for a time that insures you can follow through on.  To a kid, 15 minutes is just as effective as 15 hours.  More so, if you think about it.  After a certain period of time, the child has forgotten why they are being punished, don’t care about the item, or they forget about the item.  Any of those makes the reinforcement less effective.

Also, when working with younger kids and autistic ones, it’s not enough to tell them what not to do, you have to show them the right way to do it.  For example, when I asked my son, “What’ya watching?” he said, “Nothing.”  (Yes, autistic kids also pull that one.)  I looked at the iPad and it was Angry Birds cartoons.  He’s allowed to watch that, but it’s a knee jerk reaction, apparently.  We responded, “Nope, let’s try again.  Alex, what’ya watching?” He said, “Angry Birds cartoons.” It’s okay to have them repeat it a couple of times and give them praise when they do it right.  And yes, it will work with older kids, just don’t make the praise quite so obvious.

Here’s the good news: It’s working.  At first we had a few trials and errors, but this has been a lot easier than roaming pages of Internet history, and we’d like to think it banks trust.  There will come a time when they have the problems that every teenager goes through and have trouble talking about, autistic or not. 

When that happens, I want them to come to us, especially when it’s important.  So, not sweating the little things or getting mad over them will help later… we hope.

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