Used correctly, the Internet can be a safe place for young people with learning disabilities to get support, according to a recent study that looked at their online messages.
Researchers gathered youths’ voices from the Sparktop.org Web site run by the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, of San Mateo, Calif., to look into what they called the “virtual, but authentic” voices of young people who identify themselves as having a learning disability. The site offers resources for children and adolescents with learning difficulties and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The researchers did not know the identities of the 164 youths, ages 9 to 18, whom they studied. However, by combing through close to 5,000 e-mail messages the users in the study exchanged among themselves, other users, and animated fictionalized characters who are set up on the site as “teen mentors,” researchers were able to identify common themes, said Marshall H. Raskind, the director of research and special projects for the foundation, which also sponsors Schwab Learning, an online resource for parents.
The study, conducted by Mr. Raskind, Malka Margalit, a professor of education at Tel Aviv University in Israel, and Eleanor L. Higgins, a learning-disabilities researcher in Sierra Madre, Calif., was published in the fall 2006 issue of Learning Disability Quarterly, a peer-reviewed publication of the Council for Learning Disabilities in Overland Park, Kan.
The researchers used data-mining software to dig through the comments made by different posters. Because of privacy concerns, they relied on the youths’ self-identification of their learning disabilities.
‘Is it Contagious?’
On Sparktop, one youth offered this description: “My mom says there’s a smartness level. I feel like my smartness level is at—stupidity. I don’t get it?”
Another wrote, “How can you have dyslexia, and is it contagious?”
And many asked for help, like one who wrote to the learning-disabilities expert on the site, “Some people don’t understand me, and I hope you do.”
Not surprisingly, Mr. Raskind said that many of the young people indicated they were more comfortable talking about their disabilities anonymously than they were in real-life situations.
“Many kids indicated they were more willing to ask for and receive help in the virtual community than they were in the real, school world,” he said.
Charles A. Giglio, the president of the Pittsburgh-based Learning Disabilities Association of America, agreed that the social outlet of the Internet is important.
“That’s not so unusual for any teenager to want to share more of themselves online,” said Mr. Giglio, whose adult daughter has learning disabilities and struggled as a teenager for social acceptance. “One of the things I learned from my daughter is that kids with learning disabilities want to be treated like everyone else.”
The study also indicated that many of the youths expressed negative feelings about themselves. Though it was expected, the finding was a disappointment, Mr. Raskind said. Teachers could help with the problem by stressing for students that they are more than a collection of learning deficits.
Considering the connection between self-acceptance and a successful life with a learning disability, “I would have liked to have heard more positive discussion of their learning disabilities,” Mr. Raskind said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Online Support Seen for Youths With Learning Disabilities