22 October 2020

Adolescents and young adults with intellectual disabilities need more support if they are to participate in the ongoing rapid digitalisation. There are difficulties, but also great opportunities, as shown by Kristin Alfredsson Ågren in her thesis.

Forskaren Kristin Alfredsson Ågren is looking into the camera.
Kristin Alfredsson Ågren is studying digital participation of adolescents and young adults with intellectual disabilities. Charlotte Perhammar

“The pandemic has accelerated the digital transition. A lot has been said about the isolation of the elderly as a result of the pandemic, but this applies also very much to adolescents and young adults with intellectual disabilities. My research shows, for example, that not all group homes and daily activity centres can offer Wi-Fi”, says Kristin Alfredsson Ågren, who has recently presented her doctoral thesis in occupational therapy at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Linköping University.

In the thesis, Kristin Alfredsson Ågren describes studies of how the internet is used and of digital participation in everyday life for adolescents and young adults with different levels of severity of intellectual disability.

Interviews and surveys

In one of the studies, she interviewed and followed 15 young people, aged between 13 and 24 years, to determine their access to digital devices such as mobile phones, tablets, gaming consoles and computers. She also studied how the participants used the devices, at home and in school.

 Book with symbols that makes it easier or people with intellectual disabilities to interpret the content of a text.Kristin Alfredsson Ågren has made easy-to-read summaries of the research in her thesis to make it accessible for people with intellectual disabilities. Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarIn addition, she has sent surveys to more than 300 young people in 11 special schools in several municipalities. She has asked the questions that the Swedish Media Council poses in its investigations into the media and internet use of young people in Sweden, which is conducted every other year. Kristin, however, reformulated and adapted the questions into easy-read Swedish, with picture support. This made it possible for young people with intellectual disabilities, to answer the questions, a group that the Swedish Media Council otherwise fails to include in its surveys. It also made it possible for her to compare the answers she received with data from the Swedish Media Council.

Finally, she has sent surveys to the parents of the young people with intellectual disabilities, and again used the results from the Swedish Media Council’s investigations of parents as comparison.

Tablets are an exception

She has obtained several important results and presents these in the thesis. One is that young people with intellectual disabilities have access to various digital devices, but often to a lower degree than young people in general. In the investigation carried out by the Swedish Media Council, essentially all young people, 98%, have access to a mobile phone, while the percentage is lower for young people with intellectual disabilities. Of those who participated in Kristin Alfredsson Ågren’s study, 67% had access to a mobile phone.

Kristin Alfredsson Ågren looks into the kamera.Kristin Alfredsson Ågrens' research is based both on the individual’s own perception and on the perspectives of families on the individual’s internet use and participation. Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarTablets are an exception. The proportion of young people with intellectual disabilities that has access to a tablet is slightly higher, and they play games more often than young people in general, both easy games and advanced strategy-based games.

“The study shows, however, that they often find it difficult to manage digital technology and the environment. People in the group are less able to learn from their previous experiences, and the continuous updating of apps and programs causes problems for them. They have to relearn things every time. Further, many services on the internet require an email address, something that few have access to. Text-based internet activities are particularly difficult for people in this group. The internet must be made more cognitively adapted, since so many activities now take place online”, she says.

Less worried parents

The answers from parents also differ. Just over half of the young people in the comparison group talk to their parents about what they see on the internet, while fewer young people with intellectual disabilities do so. This is also the case for games. The parents in both groups are aware of their responsibility for what their children do online, but the parents of those with intellectual disabilities are less concerned about the negative consequences of using the internet.

“This result was rather unexpected and may contribute to making it possible for young people with intellectual disabilities to increase their digital participation. The parents probably lean more towards the opportunities with internet use, such as gaining social contacts, , since adolescents with intellectual disabilities can be rather alone”, says Kristin Alfredsson Ågren.

“In my thesis, therefore, I describe that a digital lag is prevalent for this group. There are difficulties, but also great opportunities. The young people need more support to be able to use the internet, develop digital skills, and participate in today’s digital society”, she says.

Kristin Alfredsson Ågren has also done something very unusual. Her thesis (in English) presents a summary of the results in easy-read Swedish with picture support.
“It was important for me to share the results with the participants in my research”, she says.

She has also received funding from LiU Innovation to disseminate her results to people who work with young people with intellectual disabilities, because it is the adults around them who can provide for examplethe support they need to achieve increased participation.

The thesis:

Internet use and digital participation in everyday life. Adolescents and young adults with intellectual disabilities, Kristin Alfredsson Ågren, Occupational Therapy Unit, Department of Health, Medicine and Caring Sciences, Linköping University, 2020.

Main supervisor Helena Hemmingsson


Research project

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