In 2007, I had just started my role as Quality Analyst at ChoiceSupport. My first office job lunch breaks consisted mainly of eating, with no smartphone (just my Nokia 8210). A friend kept harassing me to join something called Facebook. I eventually relented, looking at it from time to time, mainly ‘poking’ people and playing stupid games.

"Young people with learning disabilities are aware of the risks surrounding social media but also see the additional risk of being isolated if they do not join in."

Fast forward eleven years and it is hard to imagine life without social media: the place where I connect with friends and family all over the world, discover and book music gigs and events specifically tailored to my interests, stay in touch with world events and importantly use it to run Supported Loving. It is the instant, often unrestricted, connection to others that has both positive and negative connotations.

Facebook and other forms of social media such as Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have become an addiction for many. Ofcom found that 95% of people in the UK own a smart phone and spend on average 20 hours per week using it to access the internet. Numerous studies have highlighted the problem of mobile phone addiction and the World Health Organisation has declared addictive mobile phone use a “public health concern”.

Etiquette

Technology has developed so fast around us that we have been forced to adapt quickly to learn the rules of social media etiquette such as: Don’t share a Britain First post or retweet Donald Trump (unless you are mocking him) and the friend requests from super-hot scantily clad women are usually fake. How did I learn these rules? It was not covered in school because social media did not exist in the 1990s! It was something we have all learnt through our own experiences and trial and error.  

57 percent of people with learning disabilities have a Smart Phone, Ofcom found in 2015. I expect this number has risen in the past three years. How are people with learning disabilities engaging with the internet? There is limited UK research on this topic and as we found at Supported Loving, limited information on best practice surrounding good support.

Latest research

Swedish researchers Emma Sorbring, Lotta Löfgren-Mårtenson & Martin Molin are leading the way regarding research in this area and I asked them to write a chapter in the upcoming revised edition of Sexuality and Learning Disabilities (2nd edition). Their research shows that people with learning disabilities want to join the online social world, perhaps in a medium where their disability is not visible or a focal point, especially when it comes to areas such as love and sex.   

The difficult balancing act in this area, in terms of risk versus participation and connection, is discussed in this chapter. Issues such as young women with learning disabilities sending explicit images online via mediums such as Snapchat are covered.

In the UK there have been over 4,000 cases of sexting (sending indecent images) between people under 18 years old without a learning disability, with girls facing increased pressure to share images. This demonstrates that not just young women with learning disabilities are vulnerable. However, are young women with learning disabilities receiving guidance in this area in a way that they understand, if at all?

The Swedish researchers examine how young people with learning disabilities are aware of the risks surrounding social media but also see the additional risk of being isolated if they do not join in, perhaps including some of the more damaging aspects such as sexting. The chapter delves into a key element, central to the work of Supported Loving, namely that people with learning disabilities require good support in this area for this to be a positive experience.

Rules that most people without learning disabilities understand and follow, such as not adding strangers who request you on Facebook, need to be explained to help people to interact safely online. The author are clear in illustrating that guidance should be part of a professional code of conduct, rather than reliant upon staff members’ own subjective attitudes and experiences.

The internet has changed society in terms of how we connect with others, both positively and negatively. People with learning disabilities are no exception. We need to support individuals as members of social networks to participate safely and appropriately. To hear the full story and receive detailed practical advice regarding supporting people in this ever-changing area, purchasing the book is encouraged.

Sexuality and Learning Disabilities (2nd Edition) is available to order now.