July 22, 2019

Is Social Media Harmful to Students with Disabilities?

New research finds social media has benefits and serious risks for students with disabilities.

Social media is a staple of adolescent life in the United States, and it has transformed how teenagers connect with each other, with both positive and negative effects. For students with disabilities, those negative effects include higher rates of cyberbullying.

A new study from EDC and the Ruderman Family Foundation is one of the first to examine the associations between social media, cyberbullying, and mental health for students with disabilities. While students with disabilities were more likely to report receiving messages of hope and support online, they were also more likely to be cyberbullying victims, perpetrators, or even both, as compared to students without disabilities.

EDC’s Shai Fuxman, a coauthor of Social Media, Cyberbullying, and Mental Health: A Comparison of Adolescents with and without Disabilities, says previous research has shown that cyberbullying can lead to depression and suicidality among children. He wanted to know whether this problem was more severe for children and teenagers with disabilities.

“We found that it was,” Fuxman says.

The study used data from the 2016 MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey, which surveyed more than 20,000 high school students in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts. Fuxman and his coauthors, EDC’s Shari Kessel Schneider and Miriam Heyman from the Ruderman Family Foundation, found no difference in the amount of time that students with disabilities spent on social media compared to students without disabilities. However, rates of cyberbullying were significantly different.

When compared to students without disabilities, students with disabilities were:

  • 1.8 times more likely to be cyberbullying victims only
  • 1.7 times more likely to be perpetrators only
  • 1.5 times more likely to be both victims and perpetrators

Fuxman was surprised that rates of both victimization and perpetration were higher for students with disabilities, but hypothesizes that both roles are connected.

“In general, research shows that the profiles of bullies and their victims are similar,” he says. “Both tend to be outsiders and feel vulnerable. So if you have been victimized, maybe bullying is a way of seeking retaliation, or making yourself feel better by picking on someone else.”

However, these results should not discourage students with disabilities from connecting on social media. According to Fuxman, one of the strengths of social media is that it allows people with similar experiences to find each other and form a community, regardless of geography. The survey data bore this out, as students with disabilities were 36 percent more likely than students without disabilities to say that they receive support via social media.

Fuxman hopes this research inspires more parents, educators, and policymakers to look for ways to promote connectedness and pro-social behavior on sites and networks where teenagers interact. And he offers some concrete actions for confronting cyberbullying, too:

  • Parents should monitor their teenagers’ social media usage to guard against negative relationships.
  • Policymakers should continue to expand the definition of bullying to include cyberbullying.
  • Social networking sites should do more to penalize negative behavior and to reward positive actions.

“It’s unrealistic to try to keep teenagers off social media,” Fuxman says. “Therefore, if they aren’t going to stop using it, we have to figure out how they can benefit from it.”