Social Media and Our Exceptional Individuals

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

The school year is in full swing. Over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to attend this year’s Closing the Gap Conference and meet with districts and universities throughout the eastern half of the United States. There were the standard topics upon which I was asked to speak like sensory spaces, adaptive seating, transitional curriculum, and questions about specific individuals. However, there was one topic which caught me off guard. That topic was social media and how it is used by our exceptional individuals.

The most significant issue which teachers, administrators, aides, and therapists described was the fear of cyber-bullying. That is definitely a significant problem in today’s society as a whole.  We see reports every day about how our neuro-typical students have to face cyber-bullying.  Our concern is magnified when we think of how some of our exceptional individuals might have a harder time understanding and dealing with this. What I heard from some groups is that they try to keep their individuals off social media altogether. I am not a fan of that approach and here is why.

Back in the late aughts, I conducted a number of administrator trainings with the focus on being able to guide and assess teachers using digital information through educational technology. The biggest issue in many of their minds was how their teachers were using interactive whiteboards – most were using them as a screen on which images were projected. When it came to interaction, many classrooms only saw the teachers using them as a substitute dry-erase board (chalkboards for those of us from a different era.) As I took the various administrators through these sessions, I always ended with social media. Twitter had just begun and the opportunity for designing and growing one’s Personal Learning Network (PLN) was so revolutionary. Facebook had already begun its descent upwards. MySpace was already on its downward trend. There was one training where I had a superintendent interrupt me and say that social media was something his district would “never adopt as long as I am alive.” I had never had that vocal a response before so I asked him why. “I don’t care about what somebody had to eat last night. I only care about my kids passing their tests.” As you can see, his words still echo in my mind a decade later.

I thanked him for his candor and asked him if he thought his students were still going to use social media. He answered affirmatively and went on to add that they were kids and would do what kids do outside of school. I then asked him if role models were important to kids. He said yes. I kept going and asked if he believed his teachers were role models, to which he again said yes. So I asked him why he would not want his teachers to be the models for how to use something like Twitter or Facebook. I added that if his teachers were not going to be the role models, the most influential people on those platforms would be people like Brittany Spears (who had one of the largest number of followers at that point). So I asked him who would be the better role model for his students. As you might imagine, that line of reasoning caused a shift in his thinking.

I compare his thinking to the reasoning we are using today with social media and our exceptional individuals. I too am concerned with cyber-bullying. However, we often fail to recognize that cyber-bullying is now something we discuss in the news every day. When it is done covertly, it is bullying. But when it is done overtly, some hide behind their “right to free speech.” So how do we address this balance?

First, I firmly believe that to restrict anyone, especially our exceptional individuals, creates more of a desire to use these platforms. It also creates a gap between those individuals and their peers. My son recently began his collegiate career. Even though I have been on Twitter for over a decade and stay in contact with family, friends, and former students on Facebook, he was never big on using social media. He recognized that some of his friends were putting things on Facebook that were “silly” as he put it. He only joined the Facebook realm because some of his activities began posting schedules and other information online and he appreciated (as did I as a parent) the ability to have this information readily available. Texting became blasé for his peers and they became the SnapChat generation. It is amazing how deep their conversations can be via this platform. I have seen my son support others and be supported in ways not possible before. These students are also big into Instagram and I have been told that Facebook is for us “old” people! But the reality is that they are creating relationships which can span greater distances than ever before.

I bring these points up because social media is the way our young folks connect today. This is their world and not ours. They live in a global community which is much smaller than ever. It is as though the world is shrinking for them. Boundaries can be less strict. We have to understand that the days of having “pen-pals” and using rotary phones to talk to each other have been replaced by live video chats and cell phones with unlimited minutes. So who will be the ones to guide them and be their role models? We must be willing to take that role (even when SnapChatting is completely confusing!)

I follow a number of exceptional individuals on Twitter and never cease to be amazed with how much I learn from them. I am not at liberty to share their information in this blog but if you follow me at @DrSmartEd, you have probably seen me retweet or comment on their posts.  They let themselves be connected to the world beyond their homes. They also have the proper support that lets them pick and choose who to allow to directly connect with and who to block when necessary.

I had one group ask me why I thought it was good for even those with severe conditions to be on a social media platform. I explained that all too often, individuals only receive compliments or have contact with a small number of people. By expanding that group size, we can actually generate more positivity for these individuals. If they are of age, have them take selfies or have someone snap a picture of them doing various activities and create the posts. Find good folks to connect with (I follow the Dalai Lama!) Let our exceptional individuals interact on a positive level globally. These individuals feel constrained enough without letting them engage in activities that their peers do.

Will this eliminate cyber-bullying? NO! But by giving proper guidance and support, they can begin to see this negativity for what it is. We also can be there to translate the “bullying” going on overtly into distinguishing between facts and opinions. For those with more severe issues, we can guide them to the positive side of this world! We want them to be proud of who they are and what they bring to this world. We also want them to begin to understand that there will be adversity in this world and sometimes it will be directed towards them. By modeling for them how to deal with this negative feedback and how to block while reporting bullies, we are able to be there for them, even when we might not be around.

Please feel comfortable in having our exceptional individuals on various social media platforms.  Be there for them and don’t fear being on these platforms yourself. Model for them how to use these platforms correctly and how to be strong in the face of adversity. We will not find an answer to or get rid of cyber-bullying. However, we can equip individuals to better handle it when it arises. We can also have them comfortable with connecting with the outside world and being happy with who they are.

And if you have insights as to how this SnapChatting can be easier for us “old” people, please let me know!

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