Navigating social engagement in the digital age

A Personal Aside

Our Children and Students and the Internet

This post is written from what I am seeing in my capacity as a school teacher. I hear conversations about things I do not understand every day in the hallways and in the playground. I have to dedicate time in the mornings and my time after school for me to burn into my cellular data plan to engage in Google searches so I can understand what the students are talking about. Most of the time it is innocuous. Sometimes, it is hilarious, and more often than I would like, it can be downright disturbing.

At this point I have to make it clear, in the above, these conversations are by and large not started by my students with autism. My students are the followers. I am talking about all students: honors students, typical students, and my autistic students. I will explain what I see and hear, but then explain how I see it impacts my students in particular. My bias is always to focus on helping my students with autism, and I will explain this a bit later, but this is only because individuals with autism are more vulnerable and highly susceptible to the social effects of what I will discuss next.

When I started to listen closely to students in the hallways and on the playground, I noticed I was hearing a lot of common words: Halo, Destiny, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Dr. Murder, Johnny the Killer Clown, Slenderman, Jeff the Killer, Assassin’s Creed, and so on. All of these were always followed by some expression of coolness or admiration. This is what worries me. I mean, I live in Utah. We are all innocent here, right? Apparently not so much. That was why I starting hitting Google and Youtube as hard as I could in my spare time to figure this all out.

The video game references I understand, there is nothing like a good first person shooter video game to get kids’ attention. I personally was never interested in first person shooters, but I clearly remember when the local 7-11 got the arcade game version of Mortal Kombat. Can anyone guess where all my quarters went?

The references to mythical serial killers are something else however. I have to admit I was entirely confused and befuddled by what I was hearing; admiration for serial killers? What is this all about? Did I hear wrong? Am I really that square and out of touch?

Yes. I was and still am utterly and completely out of touch. I feel like an old man shaking his hand at the darn kids walking across his lawn. After a few minutes I found Creepypasta (Note: NSFW language and blocked by many web filters). That explained everything. Horror stories created on photoshop by 30 something year old men on 4chan, but expanded upon and embellished by 10-15 year olds trying to scare their friends. I guess this is this generation’s version of the ghost stories my friends and I shared over the campfire in Boy Scouts. The difference, however, is that today I cannot tell if the kids believe their own stories or if they know they are just dumb, made up stories. That and the fanboying/fangirling, I cannot believe the fanboy/fangirl culture around Jeff the Killer and Slenderman, just to give a few easily Google-able examples (e.g., creepypastalove).

I Guess My Childhood was NOT Like Today’s Childhood Experience!
My Childhood

When I was a kid I was a little science geek. I stared at bugs and rocks through magnifying glasses. I read books, played soccer, and rode bicycles with my friends. My brother Kyle and I jumped on the trampoline for hours. We played outside with our dogs and cats. I played the NES (yes, I am of the 8 bit generation), Super Nintendo, N64, and my Sega Genesis with my brother-who was always better at it than me. I had Where in the World is Carmen San Diego and Sim City (freshly endowed with African Swallow mode) on my computer. I watched the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bulls. I thought Voltron was the greatest thing ever. I laughed until I cried when I watched Alf and Mr. Belvedere. Saturday morning cartoons and cooking shows on PBS after that until noon were the reason to get out of bed on Saturday.

I was obsessed with Star Trek in all forms. Star Trek the Next Generation was my favorite TV show (and still is). Now, at this time, my brother with autism was watching economics and political TV shows on PBS, and later he got me addicted. We recorded Monty Python, Mr. Bean, The Black Adder (all series), and Red Dwarf on PBS to watch Sunday after we got home from church. His favorite TV show was Hill Street Blues.

When I got to school, all my friends wanted to play four square, jump rope, play soccer, or shoot hoops at recess. Later on, we played football and softball. We liked to hang on the monkey bars (by hands or knees) and spin until dizzy on the swings. There was a little bit of Cops and Robbers on the playground, but it was rare. Running around with a soccer ball was a lot more fun.

What I See Today

Most of the kids at school are playing basketball, four square, or jump rope. In the last 2 weeks (just to limit my examples), from the kids hanging out on the playground equipment, I see the following games (from the general education kids in 3-6th grade): Halo, Destiny, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Assassin’s Creed. All of these involve kids chasing after each other and pretending to kill each other. Often, this killing is followed by an elaborate and gory death scene. As the games progress, they often go from a tag-you’re-it at the beginning to a full-contact mixed martial arts vibe right before the kids are called in to class. Actually, that was the case before I stepped in and put the kibosh on the games because I felt it was too much and someone was going to get hurt.

When I ask the general education kids what they do at home, I get a near-universal answer: I play video games. I ask which ones and I am told the list I have repeated over and over in this post. Assassin’s Creed, Halo, Destiny, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto. I ask about TV shows and movies and I am told the same answer, “Oh, I don’t watch TV, I watch Youtube instead”. I ask if their parents watch with them and I get an epic side eye that notifies me I clearly do not understand how things work and they say, “of course not, they are watching TV.” When a student does watch TV they are watching Sherlock, Bones, and various iterations of CSI (at 8 years old!), and they love describing the murder that was solved that week.

Social Effects on Children with Autism

I worry about these things with regards to my students because they have to work so hard to fit in with their peers every minute of every single day. My students have significant difficulty in understanding where the line between appropriate play and taking it one step too far for the game. They have difficulty in understanding where the game ends and reality begins. This is not a good recipe for social success.

A good example is in the games kids play on the playground. I was watching one day as one of my former students was playing with some general education peers in an as-yet unnamed game based on Halo (the nature of the fake guns and screaming deaths cued me to the game in the first place). In the end, the kids started to try and roughhouse. By the time I got to the kids one was on the ground in a ball after getting kicked in the ribs. Not hard, but hard enough to be a problem. In talking with my student afterward, he did not understand what happened. He told me he was following the rules of the game. He even told me the rules. He knew the other kid was not happy to be hurt, but then why was he playing? He was the one who made up the rules, so why am I (my student) in trouble?

Clearly, my student was in the wrong, but was he really? He understood the rules as said out loud perfectly; however, he did not understand the unspoken rules that govern how rough kids allow others to play with them. Is harsh judgment of my student fair given the circumstances?


Another example is in conversations my kids have with each other and with the general education kids. Often times, kids talk about scary things because it is fun. They want to feel scared, but they can take solace in the fact that they know it is fake. Heck, they may have even been the one to write the scary story they are talking about. Now, for this, Slenderman is a good example. LOTS of general education kids spend their time sharing scary stories about Slenderman: where they saw him, how they heard about a friend of a friend of a friend that disappeared in the woods and “Slendy” was responsible.

My students want to have friends, especially friends that are cool kids. So, as all kids do, they join in these games and conversations. And, like all kids, they try to outdo the scary story from their peers. They take it to far. They escalate too fast. As a result, they lose their friends because these kids with autism are viewed as creepy or troubled because their story was too dark. But, it is not because these kids are dark or troubled at all, they just took the game one step further than their peers were comfortable with. Worse, unlike other kids, they are not offered forgiveness for their mistake, but rather get offered ostracism; or worse, compared to Adam Lanza.

My final example is follows directly from the previous example. Sometimes children with autism do not have as rigid a distinction between reality and fantasy worlds. I do not mean this in a bad way, I just mean it as a reality. They also may have a more predominant fear response than their peers and a general inability to read insincerity in others (link 1, link 2). So when their peers start talking about Jeff the Killer or Slenderman (the most popular/common among the various creepypasta out there), they become afraid and seek out knowledge to understand. They go to Youtube (Slenderman example videos here). They do Google searches that extend 80-90 pages deep into the search results. Unfortunately, these videos often claim that their fiction is 100% veridical experience, often as “recovered footage from a missing journalist”. And if one does not understand that it is easy to fake YouTube videos, it is easy to be fooled. Then, they become obsessed like a child afraid of a monster in their closet or under their bed. They lose the plot. They have no context. And, as above, we do not counsel them, provide context, explain how/why it is a fiction; but rather we ostracize them, call them troubled, and refuse to provide needed help.

My Approach to Help

Personally, I have dedicated my time to helping my students truly understand myth/fiction/bullpucky/lies/TV are different than reality. I have even dedicated time providing context to the news, since our modern media often substitutes punditry for journalism. If a student believes that Transformers are real (none do, that’s why I give the example), I will help them understand that they do not. If they are afraid because they saw a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, I will patiently help them understand that they saw a movie, with a script. Same goes for Pokemòn, Charlie Brown, Voltron, Star Trek, etc. Importantly, in all of this, I go to great lengths to never make the kids feel stupid or naïve in their beliefs. I let them feel a sense of accomplishment when they figure out on their own (with my help) what the truth is compared to fiction.

Conclusion and Context

For all of this, it is important I mention that for me the jury is still out regarding whether violent video games, violent television, and creepypasta are acceptable. What I do feel wholeheartedly is that someone needs to be present to provide context. For example, if I were to have students with family in law enforcement or the military, they would potentially be obsessed with FBI, SWAT teams, soldiers, or Call of Duty because of family experience; and who do I think I am to try and interfere in their family experience? I would have to give those students a certain leeway when they talk about some sorts of violence/death when it is clear they are repeating a conversation they had with their loved ones. I would have to be okay if a child watches a Tarantino movie with their parents that were willing to provide context to the Monty Pythonesque levels of blood and gore. I would theoretically be fine if kids read and wrote micropasta for creepypasta so long as a responsible, mature adult were there to help them understand where the game ends and where reality begins.

I feel my job as an educator who focuses largely on adaptive function is to provide that context. As such, I focus a lot of energy on providing this context whenever the need arises. Sometimes, that means inviting a student to engage in a dialogue with me regarding darker topics they do not understand so we can help them grow. Other times that means I simply redirect the conversation as fast as possible (and I handle it later). I help my students learn traditional playground games to prevent any out of control behavior resulting from having to make games up based on video games.

I do worry about kids today. I feel they have in some way lost their innocence at far too young an age. They are dealing with adult issues of life, death, struggle, and fear at earlier and earlier ages-even if their actual lives are idyllic.

I worry more acutely for children with autism. These kids are having to deal with the same issues, but are handicapped by their inability to intuitively understand the social nuances that dictate where the imaginary line between okay and too far resides. And, more presciently, their lives are not idyllic to begin with. This is just plain not fair. Furthermore, I have seen too many cases where a child with autism that was just trying to fit in is subjected to close scrutiny because they misunderstood a social situation and went to far. Autistic kids are too easily tarnished by being compared to Adam Lanza or James Holmes when they made the exact same mistake a non-autistic peer made only a few minutes earlier. In other words, I fear that autistic kids are being thrown under the bus, but we look the other way when another kid does the same thing. The fact that there are separate standards for scrutiny of the behavior in autistic and non-autistic kids is just unfair, and is frankly unhelpful.

I hope my efforts to act as a guide at least helps all the students that have access to me. With time, I can only hope I can help more.


As always, please feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments! I am always happy to engage in discussions with readers!


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