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Social Media a Double-Edged Sword for Students With Disabilities, Study Finds

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Students with disabilities appear to experience higher highs and lower lows when using social media, according to a new report from the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Students with disabilities were 1.8 times more likely to be victims—and 1.7 times more likely to be perpetrators—of social media-related cyberbullying, the group found in an analysis of survey information covering 24,000 Boston-area high school students. The connection between experiencing cyberbullying and suffering from depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation was also particularly strong for these students.

At the same time, however, students with disabilities were more likely than typically developing students to say they found support on social media and felt better about themselves after using social media platforms, the analysis found.

"While students with disabilities use social media as much as students without disabilities, they are much more likely to experience both negative consequences and positive benefits related to their use of these platforms," reads the report, titled "Social Media, Cyberbullying, and Mental Health: A Comparison of Adolescents With and Without Disabilities."

Heightened vulnerability

Students with disabilities are more likely than typically developing students to experience bullying in person, as Education Week has previously reported. Reasons include perceived differences between students and struggles to pick up on social cues, among others.

When it comes to cyberbullying, the Ruderman Family Foundation report said, the negative consequences for students with disabilities can include feeling excluded or left out, low self-esteem from comparing themselves to the ways typically developing peers present themselves online, and increased exposure to people promoting risky behaviors such as self-harm.

To better understand such dynamics, researchers with the groups analyzed survey results from the 2016 MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey, funded by the MetroWest Health Foundation and administered to youth at 26 high schools in the Boston area. The survey was anonymous and voluntary, and had an 89 percent participation rate.

Overall, the researchers found: 

  • Just over 18 percent of survey respondents self reported a learning disability, physical disability, or both.
  • Similar percentages of students with disabilities (54 percent) and typically developing students (51 percent) reported spending two or more hours per day on social media.
  • More than 20 percent of all students reported experiencing cyberbullying at least once in the previous year—14 percent as victims, 3 percent as perpetrators, and 5 percent as both victims and perpetrators.
  • Twenty percent of students with disabilities reported being a victim of cyberbullying, compared to 13 percent of typically developing students.
  • Eight percent of students with disabilities reported being both a victim and perpetrator of cyberbullying, compared to 4 percent of typically developing students.

The researchers also sought to compare students experience of cyberbullying when controlling for gender, grade, and race. In doing so, they found that "students with disabilities are 1.8 times more likely to be cyberbullying victims only, 1.7 times more likely to be perpetrators only, and 1.5 times more likely to be both victims and perpetrators, compared to students without disabilities."

Finding support on social media

Those findings are particularly concerning, the Ruderman Family Foundation researchers said, because the link between experiencing cyberbullying and negative mental health consequences appears to be particularly strong for students with disabilities.

For example, 45 percent of students with disabilities who reported being victims of cyberbullying also reported experiencing depressive symptoms, compared to 31 percent of their typically developing peers.

The good news, though, is that the resesearchers found that social media can also be a particularly empowering tool for students with disabilities. Thirty-eight percent of these students, for example, said they were able to find support on such platforms, compared to 28 percent of their typically developing peers.

That's why it's particularly important for both parents and educators to take a proactive role in promoting healthy social media use, the Ruderman Foundation advised.

That could include talking with children about cyberbullying, monitoring their social media use, and teaching them strategies such as blocking other users, the researchers said.

In addition, "school-based lessons about values such as kindness, civility, and inclusion need to explicitly address online as well as in-person behavior," they wrote, and educators in particular should be particularly aware of the potential for disparate harms and benefits for students with disabilities.

Photo--Bill Tiernan for Education Week. 


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