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A Double-Edged Sword: Keeping Technology for Children with Disabilities Both Safe and Beneficial

By: Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs
HaYidion: The Prizmah Journal

Technology, we’ve learned, is a double-edged sword that must be wielded carefully. Although it affords incredible access to information and communication, it is also a tool that can be misused and abused by individuals of all ages. For children with disabilities, technology can be even more complicated and fraught with challenges, yet technology also has the potential to greatly benefit these children.


Benefits: Personalization and Social Connection

One of the most significant advantages of technology for children with special needs is its potential to facilitate personalized learning experiences. Various educational apps and software can be tailored to cater to individual learning styles and abilities, empowering children to learn at their own pace. Interactive technologies can engage children with sensory impairments, providing them with alternative means of communication and expression. Virtual reality and augmented reality applications offer immersive and multisensory experiences that promote active learning and skill development. 


Social skills development apps can assist children with autism spectrum disorder in recognizing emotions and understanding social cues, facilitating more meaningful and inclusive interactions with others. Additionally, children with communication and/or anxiety disorders can benefit from many forms of technology use. While the output of verbal communication is a challenge for these students, they have a sea of thoughts and emotions that they want to but are unable to share. For these students, access to social media and gaming can be a social life raft, through which they can create meaningful connections to others out of the face-to-face sphere, mitigating the loneliness that often overwhelms them.

Students with these challenges may prefer to stay at the periphery of the social scene both in and out of school, and resist the encouragement of their teachers and mental health professionals to take steps toward more connection. I have had students who were debilitated by the effects of anxiety. Others saw them as shy or even anti-social whereas, in truth, they were innately and deeply thirsty for social connectedness. Their desire to connect with others, while masked in traditional face-to-face forums, can shine in the digital world. They chat with others via texting and WhatsApp, and stay connected via other online forums. Through these media, they have the opportunity to share of themselves with others and develop genuine friendships.


Dangers: Gaming Addiction and Exposure to Online Predators


However, these children are also more likely to be vulnerable to the dangers associated with the very social media that allowed them to experience connection. Children with disabilities may be more prone to misunderstand the nuanced and ever-evolving language that is native to these platforms. They are more likely to fall prey to bad actors who specifically seek naiveté and vulnerability. 


We know that even for neurotypical children, prolonged exposure to screens may adversely affect attention spans, cognitive development and overall wellbeing; these negative effects are amplified in a population that already struggles in these arenas. Moreover, research has demonstrated that excessive use of certain apps or games might lead to addictive behaviors, hindering children’s ability to engage in other essential activities, such as physical exercise and face-to-face interactions.


Collaborating with Parents on Policies and Goals

While digital citizenship and safety campaigns are often provided for parents, it is equally critical for schools to look inward and consider the amount of technology consumed during school hours and evaluate its efficacy. Parents and educators must work together to instill digital literacy and responsible technology usage in children with special needs. The first step is a clear understanding and partnership on goals, expectations and limitations set both at school and at home. 

For students with special needs, the school should take the lead in teaching the children, each at his/her level, how to discern between appropriate and inappropriate content, understand online risks and develop critical-thinking skills. As children with special needs may require more explicit instruction and reinforcement, educators should integrate digital literacy lessons into their curricula, while parents can monitor and reinforce these concepts at home. Additionally, creating a technology contract between the school and the parents (and often the students themselves) outlining expectations, rules and consequences for inappropriate use can be a helpful tool in promoting responsible online behavior.

Balancing screen time with real-world experiences is crucial for the overall wellbeing of children with special needs. Parents and educators should cooperate in actively promoting offline activities, such as engaging in sports, arts and crafts, outdoor exploration and social gatherings. Educators should foster social interaction among peers by incorporating group activities into the school schedule. Encouraging offline interactions helps reduce the risk of social isolation and gaming addiction while promoting essential life skills and healthy habits.


Open Communication and Professional Guidance

It is vital to establish safe spaces where children with special needs feel comfortable discussing their experiences with technology, both positive and negative. Parents and educators should work together to create an atmosphere of trust and support, assuring the children that they can share their concerns without fear of judgment or punishment. By fostering open communication, children are more likely to report any instances of cyberbullying, online harassment or discomfort with certain online interactions. Addressing these issues promptly can help prevent further harm and support the child’s emotional health.

Parents and educators should seek professional guidance and training to better understand the challenges that children with special needs face in the digital world. Workshops, seminars and educational resources tailored to these specific needs can provide valuable insights and practical strategies. Knowledgeable professionals, such as special education teachers, therapists and technology experts, can offer guidance on creating individualized plans for children with special needs to navigate the digital landscape safely.

In the face of rapidly advancing technology, parents and educators must collaboratively protect children with special needs from the potential dangers of social media, gaming addiction and other ills of technology. By fostering digital literacy, employing parental controls, encouraging offline activities, creating safe spaces for communication and seeking professional guidance, these vulnerable individuals can thrive in the digital age while remaining shielded from harm. Together, we can create a safe and supportive environment that empowers children with special needs to use technology responsibly and enjoy the benefits it offers while safeguarding their overall wellbeing.


To read this article as it originally appeared in HaYidion: The Prizmah Journal, click here.