Online Social Media Poses Opportunities and Risks in Autistic Youth: Implications for Services From a Qualitative Study
BACKGROUND: Autistic people are vulnerable to developing mental health problems due to their difficulties in managing social situations and interpersonal relationships. The popular online social media (OSM) can be a potential solution to these concerns for their social lives as it allows non-face-to-face social interactions, however it remained unclear how this group is using these online platforms. This study explored their experiences of using online social media, and their perceived benefits and risks associated with this use.
METHOD: Qualitative data was collected through in-depth face to face interviews. We recruited 13 autistic young adults who were with normal intelligence from two community centers in Hong Kong. Interviews were conducted in a semi-structured format by experienced clinical psychologist and social workers.
RESULTS: Four themes were identified from the data, namely: (1) Paradox of using OSM to supplement social needs; (2) Unpleasant social interactions in the online environment; (3) Restricted and repetitive pattern of interest leading to troubles in OSM use, and; (4) Privacy and personal safety issues. The results suggested that while OSM could be a useful tool for our participants to connect with existing friends and to meet new ones, their limitations, such as difficulties in understanding languages and social interaction as well as restricted patterns of interests could potentially put them at risk, including interpersonal conflicts, cyber-bullying, financial scams, as well as unwanted sexual experiences. These experiences not only paradoxically increased their sense of loneliness and their distance from others, but also resulted in a negative impact on their mood and functioning.
CONCLUSION: This qualitative study provided some insights into the OSM use among autistic young adults. OSM could be a useful tool to overcome potential limitations in social interactions, but at the same time it could potentially bring detrimental consequences. In order to maximize the benefits of online social networking, there is a need for timely guidance and support to use OSM among autists, and for psychoeducation to promote awareness, and enable adequate skills and behaviors attainment associated with safe OSM use.