In Sweden (where this study was conducted) 98% of 13 to 18-year-olds use the internet daily. However, not everyone is on an equal footing regarding access to the internet, especially during the teenage years. This study focuses on the access and use of the internet by adolescents with intellectual disabilities.
“Intellectual disability is defined as difficulties in both intellectual and adaptive functioning prevalent in practical and social everyday life domains as well as in the conceptual domain (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).” Difficulties can include troubles in writing, reading, spelling, but also more complex issues such as access to digital devices, motor skills to handle devices, cognitive abilities, and comprehension of social codes and conventions when using the internet.
This study compares the internet use of adolescents with and without intellectual disabilities in terms of access (to devices supporting the Internet), activities performed online, difficulties, and risk as well as risk management when using the internet.
Participants were gathered from 11 different Swedish schools, aged 13 to 20 years, between compulsory and upper-secondary special schools within 2 provinces. Participants presented different severity levels of intellectual disabilities.
The study consisted of a survey, based on a national survey called “Kids and Media” by the Swedish Media Council, but adapted into a more cognitive online version (questions were simplified, scales of answers were adapted to a one-word response on a 2- to 4-point scale, pictures were added, support was provided to long on…).
The survey contained 4 sections: (1) demographics, (2) access to internet-enables devices (smartphones, tablets, computers), (3) activities on the internet like searching for information, using social media or gaming, and (4) questions on the adolescents’ experiences of using the internet, such as difficulties encountered. There were 54 questions in total, 29 directly linked to the topic of the study.
Results showed that a lower proportion of adolescents with intellectual disabilities had access to smartphones (67% vs 98%) and computers of their own (54% vs 77%), as well as a higher proportion of adolescents with intellectual disabilities, had no access to devices at all. However, more adolescents with intellectual disabilities had a tablet of their own (61% vs 48%) while the reference group more often shared tablets.
Adolescents with intellectual disabilities are less active on the Internet than the reference group in most activities, except for gaming where 84% of adolescents with disabilities play games compared to 63% of the reference group. Most other activities (watching YouTube videos, listening to music, contacting friends on social media) were performed a little less than the reference group but without a striking difference. However, adolescents with disabilities use the internet way less for searching information (20%) than the reference group (86%).
As for difficulties adolescents with disabilities encounter, sending text-based messages such as emails presented a lot of difficulties, as well as find and understand information. A significantly higher proportion of adolescents with intellectual disabilities have experiences of being bullied on the Internet than adolescents in the reference group: 23% versus 11%, therefore they are less likely to reveal personal information online compared to the reference group, such as giving one’s real name (48% vs 76%).
Kristin Alfredsson Agren and Anette Kjellberg (2020), “Digital participation? Internet use among adolescents with and without intellectual disabilities: A comparative study,” New Media and Society, Vol. 22, 2128-2145, DOI: 10.1177/1461444819888398