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Teens, Autism, and the Web: Purchasing, Networking, and Cyberbullying Concerns

Cheryl Cohen, MS
Interactive Autism Network
Date Published: 
October 12, 2016
My son was tricked into providing personal information, account info, passwords, etc. He's very naive and I worry a lot about that, despite my warnings.

This is the second in a series of research reports about teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), how they use technology in their day-to-day lives, their successes and their difficulties, as well as their parents' concerns. These reports are based on a study that was performed in late 2015 using subjects that were recruited with the assistance of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) Research Database and Community, as well as social media.

As reported in our first article, most of the teens in our study were going online and the teens with autism had more difficulty with such basic online tasks as filling in forms and finding the desired information on web pages. (Read the first report to learn more.) This report looks at parents’ concerns about their teens’ online networking and purchasing behaviors, as well as their concerns regarding online bullying (cyberbullying).

The web is a place to find information, to connect with others, and to explore the world. This two-dimensional space has become the world’s front door. It contains the most complex marketplace; a vast library of information, some vetted, some outrageous; entertainment and distractions too numerous to perceive; and a social world too intricate to understand. Naturally, many parents are concerned about the online behavior of their teens. But are they equally concerned about their teens with autism and their 'neurotypical' teens? In our study of teens and technology, we explored these concerns. The results follow. But first, a little about the study itself.

How did we do the study?

To learn how teens with autism were using the web and other technologies, and the problems and successes that they were having, parents of children with and without autism, ages 13-17, and living in the US responded to an online survey containing 80 questions.1

Parents completed 347 surveys with 263 parents reporting on their teens with ASD and 84 parents reporting on their typically-developing teens. Note that some of the parents reported on more than one teen.

For our analysis, we divided the teens into three groups based on the parents’ responses:

  • ASD Average (129/37%) - These were teens with autism and average or above average intellectual ability as reported by their parents.
  • ASD Low (134/39%) - These were teens with autism and lower than average intellectual ability as reported by their parents.
  • TD (84/24%) - Typically-developing teens. Parents reported that all of these teens had average or higher intellectual ability for their age. All but one teen in this group was reported to have average or above average social skills.

There was no statistically significant difference in the groups when it came to parents’ income or education. (No statistically significant difference means that the difference between the groups could have happened by chance alone and was not large enough to draw any conclusions.) Also, the level of education and household income of the group that responded was higher than that of the US population.2

Are Online Purchasing and Joining Behaviors a Concern in Teens with Autism?

Buying things, connecting socially, and accessing information behind paywalls and other online barriers are extremely important skills in modern society. These skills are particularly important when a person’s access to transportation is limited and when in-person social interaction is a challenge. However, as we all know, teens (as well as adults) can get themselves into trouble online.

Fewer ASD Low teens in our study were making purchases and signing up for offers online at 17%. This is significantly smaller than that for the ASD Average teens (55%) and TD teens (60%).

When we asked: Does your child purchase online offers or online subscriptions or sign up for websites that he/she shouldn't?, more than half of the parents of the ASD Low teens (53%) who were buying things and signing up online were concerned about inappropriate purchasing or joining. That concern was significantly less for the ASD Average teens (35%) and the TD teens (19%).

As one parent with a teen with autism commented:

He's accidentally bought things thinking they were free or have given out personal information such as email, phone#, address etc. thinking he had to in order to see or use something.

Is Cyberbullying a Concern in Teens with Autism?

Bullying has been shown to be a problem for children with autism. In an IAN study, 38% of the parents reported that their child was bullied in the past month and 63% had been bullied during their lifetime. 3 Because of this finding, we asked this question about cyberbulling: In the past year, has your child been taken advantage of or bullied on social media, photo sharing sites, discussion forums, or chat rooms? The parents of the ASD Average group had the greatest level of concern at 25%, the ASD Low was 15%, and the TD was 14%. The difference between the groups was not statistically significant.

This finding is similar to a recent study that found that 15% of their sample of parents of ADHD and Asperger’s teens and preteens thought that their child had been bullied online in the past two months, with parents underestimating the incidence, according to their children.4 A Pew Internet and American Life survey concluded that 15% of teens that used social media had been “the target of online meanness” and 8% reported that they were bullied online in the past year.5

Are Teens' Postings on Social Media a Concern?

To learn about parents' concerns about the content of their teens’ online communications, we asked: Are you concerned about the content of your child’s comments or postings on social media?

This was an important concern for parents of teens in all of the groups. Fifty-one percent of the parents of ASD Low teens, 44% of the ASD Average, and 41% of the TD parents reported concern. There was no statistically significant difference between the groups.

A parent of a teen with autism commented:

In the past she's talked to strangers and watched things she shouldn’t. I'm very afraid of predators.

Thank You!

A heartfelt thank you goes to the IAN parents and others who generously gave their time to complete this survey.

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  1. Cohen, C.A. (2015). Identifying opportunities to improve the accessibility of web and information technology for people on the autism spectrum (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Baltimore, Baltimore.
  2. Cohen, C.A. & Marvin, A. (2016, April). Web difficulties and concerns: Teens with autism. Paper presented at the meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, Baltimore, MD.
  3. Zablotsky, B., Bradshaw, C. P., Anderson, C., & Law, P. A. (2013). The association between bullying and the psychological functioning of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 34(1), 1–8.
  4. Kowalskia, R.M. & Fedina, C. (2011). Cyber bullying in ADHD and Asperger Syndrome populations. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(3), 1201–1208.
  5. Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith, A., Purcell, K., Zickuhr, K., & Rainie, L. (2011). Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites . Retrieved from