Online safety is hard enough for most adults. We reuse weak passwords, we click on suspicious links, and we love to share sensitive information that should be kept private and secure. (Just go back a few months to watch adults gleefully sharing photos of their vaccine cards.) The consequences of these failures are predictable and, for the most part, proportional—a hacked account, a visit to a scam website, maybe some suspicious texts asking for money.
But for an often-ignored segment of the population, online safety is more about discerning lies from truth and defending against predatory behavior. These are the threats posed specifically to children with special needs, who, depending on their disabilities, can have trouble understanding emotional cues and self-regulating their emotions and their relationship with technology.
This year, for National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, Malwarebytes Labs spoke with Alana Robinson, a special education technology and computer science teacher for K–8, to learn about the specific online risks posed to special needs children, how parents can help protect their children with every step, and how teachers can best educate special needs children through constant reinforcement, “gamification,” and tailored lessons built around their students’ interests.
Importantly, Robinson said that special needs education for online safety is not about a handful of best practices or tips and tricks, but rather a holistic approach to equipping children with the broad set of skills they will need to safely navigate any variety of risks online.
“Digital citizenship, information literacy, media literacy—these are all topics that need to be explicitly taught [to children with special needs],” Robinson said. “The different is, as adults, we think that you should know this; you should know that this doesn’t make sense.”
Whether adults actually know those things, however, can be disputed.
“I mean, as I said,” Robinson added, “it is also challenging for adults.”
Our full conversation with Robinson, which took place on our podcast Lock and Code, with host David Ruiz, can be listened to in full below.
The large risk of disinformation and misinformation
The risks posed to children online are often similar and overlapping, no matter a child’s disability. Cyberbullying, encountering predatory behavior, interacting with strangers, and posting too much information on social media platforms are all legitimate concerns.
But for children with behavioral challenges, processing challenges, and speech and language challenges in particular, Robinson warned about one enormous risk above all: The risk of not being able to discern fact from fiction online.
“Misinformation and disinformation online [are] a great threat to our students,” Robinson said. “There were many times [my students] would come in and say ‘I saw this online’ and we would get into discussions because they were pretty adamant that what they saw is correct.”
Those discussions have increased dramatically in frequency, Robinson said, as her students—and children all over the world—watch videos at an impossibly fast rate on platforms like YouTube, which, according to the company’s 2017 statistics, streams more than one billion hours of video a day. That video streaming firehose becomes a problem when those same platforms have to consistently play catch-up to stop the wildfire-like spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories online, as YouTube just did last week when it implemented new bans on vaccine misinformation.
“I have students pushing back and telling me, no, we never landed on the moon, that’s fake,” Robinson said. “These are the things they’re consuming on these platforms.”
To help her students understand how misinformation can spread so easily, Robinson said she shows them how it can be daylight outside her classroom, but at the same time, if she wanted, she could easily post a video online saying that it is instead nighttime outside her classroom.
Robinson said she also encourages her students to ask if they’re seeing these claims made elsewhere, and she steers them to what are called “norm-based reputable sources”—trustworthy websites that can provide fact-checks while also removing her students from the progression of recommended online videos that are fed to them through algorithms that prioritize engagement above all else.
“This is what we call building digital habits,” Robinson said, emphasizing the importance of digital literacy in today’s world.
The promise of a “solution” to misinformation and disinformation online almost feels too good to be true, whether that solution equips special needs children with the tools necessary to investigate online sources or whether it helps adults without special needs defend against hateful content that is allegedly prioritized by one enormous technology company to boost its own profits.
So, when Robinson was asked directly as to whether these teaching models work, she said yes, but that the models require constant reinforcement from many other people in a child’s life.
Comparing digital literacy education to math education, Robinson said that every single year, students revisit the topics they learned the year before. She called this return to past topics “spiraling.”
“Part of developing digital students into really successful, smart, discernible, digital adults is the ongoing, constant spiraling and teaching of these concepts,” Robinson said. “If you can collaborate with other content area educators in your building, you’re infusing these topics through subject areas.”
Essentially, Robinson said, teaching online safety and cybersecurity to special needs children needs to be the responsibility of more than just a single technology teacher. It needs to be taken on by several subject matter educators and by parents at home.
For parents who want to know how they can help out, Robinson suggested finding teaching moments in everyday, common mistakes. If a parent themselves falls for a phishing scam, Robinson said those same parents can take that as an opportunity to teach their children about spotting online scams.
“It’s an ongoing work and it never stops,” Robinson said.
Teach kids about what they like using
To help special needs children understand and take interest in online safety education, Robinson said she always pays attention to what her students are using and what they’re interested in. This simple premise makes lessons both applicable and interesting to all students—not just those with special needs—and it provides a way for children to immediately understand what they’re learning, why they’re learning it, and how it can be applied.
As an example, since so many of her students watch videos on TikTok, Robinson spoke to her students last year about the US government's reported plans to ban the enormously popular app.
“The federal government was thinking of not allowing TikTok to be used here because it might’ve been a safety risk, and so we had that discussion, and I said ‘What happens if you couldn’t use TikTok anymore?’” Robinson said.
Robinson said this tailored approach also gives teachers and parents an opportunity to help kids not just stay safe online, but also learn about the tools they use every day to view online content. The tools themselves, Robinson said, can greatly impact how a child with special needs feels on any given day—sad, happy, worried, scared, anything goes—and that children with special needs can often use guidance in self-regulating and understanding their own emotions.
Robinson added that many of her lessons about online tools and platforms have a similar message: If a game or website or tool makes her students feels uncomfortable, they should tell an adult.
It’s a rule that could likely help even adults when they find themselves gearing up to get into an online argument for little legitimate reason.
Embrace the game
Finally, Robinson said that many of her students enjoy using online games to learn about online safety, and she specifically mentioned Google’s Internet safety game called “Interland,” which parents can find here.
Google’s Interland leads kids through several short “games” on online safety, with lessons centered around the topics of “Share with Care,” “It’s Cool to Be Kind,” and “Don’t Fall for Fake.” The browser-based games ask kids to go through a series of questions with real scenarios, and each correct answer earns them points while their digital character jumps from platform to platform. The website works with most browsers, but Malwarebytes Labs found that it ran most smoothly on Google Chrome and Safari.
Interestingly, when it comes to lessons that Robinson’s special needs students excel at, she said they are excellent at creating strong passwords—and at calling people out for using weak ones.
“I teach 100 students, 10 classes, [and] I used not a very strong password for every student in this one class … and I said ‘By the way, everyone has this [password],’ and they’re like, when I said everyone has this same password, they’re like ‘Oh no no! That’s not a strong password, oooh,’” Robinson said, laughing. “They literally let me have it.”