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Social Networking Sites: Consider the Benefits, Concerns for Your Teenager

by Julie Holmquist

Social networking sites have become an integral part of today's culture, especially for teens. Of the 65 percent of teens using sites such as Facebook and MySpace, 61 percent use them to send messages to their friends and 42 percent send messages to friends every day this way, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (Lenhart, Madden, Smith, & Macgill, 2007). That's why it's important for parents to consider the special concerns and benefits involved for teens with disabilities using the sites, says Bridget Gilormini, coordinator of PACER's Simon Technology Center. "We need to understand the culture so we can educate our sons and daughters," she says.


Social Networking Benefits

While teen use of social networking sites poses certain safety concerns, it can also help teens with disabilities develop the skills they need to move toward independence and adult life, says Deborah Leuchovius, coordinator of PACER's Technical Assistance on Transition and the Rehabilitation Act (TATRA) Project. "One obvious benefit is that youth can expand their circle of friends and even communicate more often with extended family," Leuchovius says. "Understanding that you have a personal network of friends and family may someday help a young person use that network to find a job. Drawing on one's own personal networks is one of the most effective strategies for finding employment." Teens with disabilities may also benefit in the following ways:


Social Networking Concerns

While there are benefits of social networking sites for teens with disabilities, there are some risks that parents need to address with their teen, as well:

In addition to these concerns, teensstruggling "offline" with issues related to their disability may encounter difficulties online, too. A teen having trouble reading social cues, for example, may become troubled by misinterpreting an online message. While it's important to be aware of possible problems, parents should avoid focusing on rare or hypothetical dangers, according to a 2008 report from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University (Palfrey, Sacco, Boyd, DeBonis et al., 2008). The report focuses on use of social media. It advises parents to help their children understand and navigate the technologies, creating a safe context so their children will turn to them if there are problems. "Trust and open lines of communication are often the best tools for combating risks," the report states. Among the report's findings:


What Parents Can Do

In determining whether and how a particular teen should use social networking sites, parents need to think about several things. First, decide if social networking is right for your teen. Consider your teen's maturity, the nature of your teen's disability, and his or her personality while weighing the benefits and concerns. If you believe your teen is ready for social networking or already uses a site, create your own profile and learn how it works. Explore the site's features, read the fine print, ask the service provider about parental controls, and teach your teen about the options. Options include choosing privacy settings so "only friends" (not friends of friends) are allowed on your teen's site. Consider using the setting options that do not allow photos of your child to be shared or e-mailed. You can also:


Note: Adapted and reprinted from Pacesetter newsletter (Fall 2009), 2009. Used with permission from PACER Center Inc., Minneapolis, MN, 952/838-9000. All rights reserved.



Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D.,& Herr-Stephenson, B., et al. (November 2008). Living and learning with new media: Summary of findings from the Digital Youth Project. Chicago, IL: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning. Retrieved 6/27/11 from

Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith A., & Macgill, A. (December 19, 2007). Teens and social media. Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center, Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved 6/27/11 from

Palfrey, J., Sacco, D., Boyd, D., DeBonis, L., & Internet Safety Technical Task Force (December 31, 2008). Enhancing child safety and online technologies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Retrieved 6/23/11 from

Julie Holmquist is Communications Director at PACER Center Inc., Bloomington, Minnesota. She may be reached at 952/ 838-9000, 888/248-0822 (national toll-free) or



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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Palmer, S., Heyne, L., Montie, J., Abery, B., & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Spring/Summer 2011). Impact: Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities, 24(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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