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Striking a balance between safety and free expression of sexuality
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The British Journal of Psychiatry 70 — Lafferty, A, McConkey, R, Taggart, L Beyond friendship: The nature and meaning of close personal relationships as perceived by people with learning disabilities. Participants exercised considerable judgement in assessing, managing, and mitigating the risks associated with meeting for the first time those newly made online friends. Such judgements were informed, not by formal education, but rather their own intuition of what constituted personal cyber safe practices. They were able to clearly articulate what were the key risks associated with meeting someone that they did not know.
Leigh 28 years old stated that:. You can go and some people can dress up like a real girl or dress up or pretend to be someone else and then they can scam and show up as an old man and take advantage of you or something like that on Facebook. And I would take my phone as well. Angelo 29 years old responded:. Finally, examples of mitigating risks were presented through descriptions of what they would do if they were feeling unsafe. Brendan 24 years old said:. What is evident is that people with intellectual disability can clearly identify a range of risks associated with their internet based social media and personal electronic device usage, assess and formulate strategies to mitigate them.
This understanding was gathered, not from formal education, but from their own understanding and self-awareness of the environment.
While expressing their desire to meet new people, some participants were unable to gain access to both personal electronic devices and internet based social media by family members. For example, some participants expressed a desire to have access to a mobile phone and internet based social media, but were prevented by a family member who had cited concerns regarding personal safety issues. Other participants who used personal electronic devices and internet based social media described surveillance behaviours by caregivers such as checking up on their online and social media activity.
Examples of gatekeeping included preventing people with intellectual disability access to personal electronic devices and internet based social media, family members warning participants not to look at certain things on-line and surveillance of activities. Those who are unable to access personal electronic devices and internet based social media risk being isolated and deprived of the potential to make new friends online. This was primarily through the use of Facebook on their personal electronic devices mobile phone.
The key internet based social media platform that was used to keep in contact with their friendship group was Facebook as it provided a message function they were able to use. The intention of the communication was to keep in contact as well as making arrangements to meet friends face to face for social outings. People with intellectual disability in this study engaged in a range of social activities, for example: catching up, going out, meeting at the mall, going to the movies.
James explains that they all meet somewhere having made the arrangements on Facebook Messenger. Participants were able to do so with their phone credit or internet data. Social activities were important as it meant that they were out in the community, using public transport to go to places such as the local mall or city centre. When not communicating with their friends, they would be using the internet to search for old friends through internet based social media such as Facebook. Outside of work, other people with intellectual disability would engage in social activities associated with their interest or hobby.
One participant, Garry 49 years old , used Facebook to post photographs to a photography group on Facebook. I go on there to do my photography [hobby]. The people I do photography with say we are going out next weekend, and as a group we meet up.
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Accessing personal electronic devices and internet based social media is an important method to maintaining existing friendships for people with intellectual disability. It facilitates their friendship by being able to send and receive communication, and arrange social activities. Rather than using internet based social media, the internet was used by people with intellectual disability to explore and express their sexuality and intimacy.
For both un-partnered individuals and those within consenting, monogamous relationships, the internet was used to access pornographic images or videos. When partnered, participants stated they viewed pornography only with permission of their partner, and discontinued when their partner expressed concern, dissent or disapproval. Those participants who were partnered in longer term relationships appeared to either feel the need or desire to view pornography or were actively encouraged not to use it by their partners.
In contrast, those participants who were single and actively viewed pornography reported they were encouraged to do so by supportive family members. One participant, Liam 24 years old , regularly viewed pornography. Drawing on earlier description about assessing, managing and mitigating risks in online personal safety judgements, participants described being careful about the content that they accessed and viewed.
They expressed concern that they did not access exploitative material such as underage or child pornography.
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Those participants involved in relationships showed great care, concern and caution when being mindful of the type and nature of the material that they were viewing and its consequences. The material was then reported to be used as a means of enhancing their current relationship by expressing their intimacy as it was a joint activity, however was solely driven by the male participants in the company of their female partner.
The objective of this research was to explore how people with intellectual disability in Australia engage with online social media and intimate relationships. The findings of this study however, suggest that those male participants who engaged in internet based viewing of pornography, did so either individually or in mutually exclusive heterosexual relationships. A limitation of this study, it should be noted, is that no sexually diverse participants were sampled.
So too, those male participants who used pornography by themselves were able to explore their own sexuality in the privacy of their own home with the support of their parents, particularly mothers. Whereas this study contributes to paucity of research about how people with intellectual disability engage online, particularly in relation to the sexual self-expression of older adults, who it was found are also able to identify, assess and formulate strategies to mitigate personal cyber safety risks.
The participants in this study, with no formal online safety education, described their rationale and judgement for safe online behaviours when meeting new people.
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