For Individuals on the spectrum and with NVLD social media is a two-edged sword. The benefits have been well-documented, with some studies indicating that neurodiverse adults who use it are more likely to have close friendships (Mazurek, 2013). Many may also feel more comfortable communicating in this medium, as they are less vulnerable to the faux pas and misunderstandings that may arise from misreading nonverbal communication. However, not only can social media be addictive, but it also contains its own norms and rules. For some people, understanding how many times to like a post or write an appropriate response is a critical step towards effective online engagement. Fortunately, it is a skill that can be taught and learned.
It is important to acknowledge that many neurodiverse individuals show greater levels of happiness due to social media use. For example, one study found that adults on the spectrum who use Facebook are generally happier than those who do not. This may at least partially be explained by the positive reinforcement of receiving likes and friend requests (Healio, 2018). For others, finding an online group with similar interests may be valuable for building community and social confidence. With 22% of adults on the spectrum suffering from social anxiety, it is logical to conclude that many neurodiverse people are drawn to social media as a way to meet others. When used appropriately, it can be an important tool for building social confidence and skills.
While social media may be an ideal form of communication for some adults on the spectrum, it is important to recognize that the dopamine rush of receiving positive online social feedback can become addictive. Moreover, online connections often lack the mutual reciprocity and the in-depth nature of real-life interpersonal relationships. Also, what may be a casual gesture, such as liking a post, can be misinterpreted as an act of friendship, leading to future discomfort. Therefore, it is important to understand the often depersonalized nature of online interaction, and that it usually fails to be a substitute for real life friendships.
The other aspect of social media that can be a challenge to navigate is the potential for being misinterpreted. Many people have lost a significant other, friendship, and even jobs after accidently breaking a taboo or offending someone. For example, even a well-intentioned compliment of a female friend regarding her swimsuit photo by the beach may be misunderstood as an unwanted advance. Therefore, practicing perspective taking is an important aspect of effective social media engagement. However, a parent or family member is not always the best person to build this skill with, and an individual may actually benefit more from speaking with a therapist instead who is familiar with online rules and ettiquite and removed from the person’s environment.
Cyber bullying is another potential pitfall of social media faced by many non-neurotypical adults and adolescents with NVLD and on the spectrum. The fact that these individuals are more likely to be bullied has been well-documented, with a recent report stating that they represent 63% of victims. Non-neurotypical people face a specific vulnerability because it may be a challenge for them to identify when somebody is using sarcasm, gossiping, or exploiting personal information. However, it is possible to spend some time identifying who is an authentic friend online, as well protecting oneself. For example, looking up another person’s identity to make sure that they are a real person, examining their friend group, and asking what they are looking for in a friendship with you, while maintaining personal privacy are helpful for avoiding bullying. Also, it is important to remember that social connections are formed over time; sometimes, those who are eager for connection will fail to recognize the appropriate stages of friendship, and become overly trusting from the beginning, which makes them vulnerable to bullying.
Finally, there are a variety of negative effects correlated with excessive screen time for children on the spectrum, including inhibited social skill development and sleep cycle (L. Dunckley, 2016). Similar effects may be observed with adults. Practicing moderation is key for maintaining one’s health and well-being. This is partly done by developing other activities that one enjoys outside of social media, such as time in nature, reading, etc. At times, even with considerable social anxiety, it can be beneficial to push oneself to meet others in person, participating in activities of interest, as doing so can help to build the interpersonal skills that are harder to develop online.
By using social media effectively, neurodiverse individuals can build meaningful connections. For some, it may be an easier medium than real life interaction, as there is less emphasis on nonverbal communication. However, it is important to recognize that social media can be addictive, and that online relationships lack some of the reciprocity of in-person friendships. Also, similarly to the offline word, there are many opportunities to misunderstand another person to be misunderstood. Therefore, it can be helpful to develop one’s social media communication style. Sometimes, it can be helpful to practice reviewing a post with a friend or therapist before publishing it, while also modulating the number of likes one gives. It can also be wise to read over another person’s post or message with a therapist or friend to interpret its meaning. Ultimately, social media can be an effective social tool for neurodiverse individuals, but it needs to be used in moderation and with care. Luckily, this can be learned.
Healio. (2018, March 16). Healio. Retrieved from Psychiatry Autism Spectrum Disorders: https://www.healio.com/news/psychiatry/20180316/moderate-facebook-use-boosts-happiness-in-adults-with-autism
L. Dunckley, V. (2016, December 31). Autism and Screen TIme: Special Brains, Special Risk. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-wealth/201612/autism-and-screen-time-special-brains-special-risks
Mazurek, M. (2013). Social media use among adults with autism spectrum disorders. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1708-1714. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0747563213000708?via%3Dihub
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