Encourage positive aspects of social media for children, teens while guarding against risks
- Copyright © 2011 by the American Academy of Pediatrics
When Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, M.D., FAAP, walks into her exam room, she often finds her patient on a Nintendo DS and the parent on a cell phone. Clearly, when it comes to digital devices, youngsters model what they see.
“Many younger parents are very active digital citizens, and they are passing these skills on to their youngest children,” the North Carolina physician explained. “An emerging concern is that children are becoming so immersed in the great variety of different screens that they may be missing the necessary opportunities for developing social, cognitive and language skills.”
That is why pediatricians need to talk to their families about balancing screen time and real life, Dr. Clarke-Pearson said.
A new clinical report from the AAP Council on Communications and Media urges physicians to do just that. The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Families (Pediatrics 2011;127:800-804OpenUrl, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/peds.2011-0054v1) states that pediatricians are in a unique position to encourage healthy use of popular social networking, gaming and video sites.
While children may reap a number of benefits from these sites (e.g., broadening social connections and learning how to post a video), risks do exist. These include cyberbullying, “Facebook depression,” “sexting” and exposure to inappropriate content, said Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, M.D., FAAP, lead author of the report and the author of CyberSafe, an AAP parenting book (see resources below).
Avoid digital world’s dangers
Cyberbullying is quite common and can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide. Life-altering consequences may arise for bullies as well as victims. In Miami recently, two teenage girls were charged with felony aggravated stalking after they allegedly set up a Facebook account in a classmate’s name and altered nude photos using the classmate’s face. Dr. O’Keeffe noted that all the kids in such a scenario may require treatment for mental health issues. “These are not normal kids,” she said. “Normally adjusted kids don’t do this.”
How does a parent know if a child is a victim of cyberbullying? “For parents to pick up on it, they have to be really involved,” Dr. O’Keeffe said. Signs include avoiding or being anxious around the computer or cell phone. The best thing is to teach kids from an early age that they can confide in their parents without getting yelled at.
Adults may be surprised to learn how prevalent sexting is within the teen community. In one recent survey, 20% of the teenage respondents admitted to sending or posting nude or semi-nude photos of themselves, according to the clinical report. Swift, widespread distribution of such photos via cell phones and computers may result in emotional distress, school suspension and legal troubles. While some states have begun to treat such missteps as a misdemeanor, others have filed felony child pornography charges.
Dr. Clarke-Pearson, who co-authored the AAP clinical report, said parents need to make sure kids understand the ramifications of posting inappropriate material. Once something is on the Internet, it can’t be taken back. With each click of the mouse, an adolescent is creating a “digital footprint” that will follow him. A snarky remark on Facebook may turn off a future potential employer.
Parents should be advised to educate themselves about the technologies their children use. That may mean joining social networking sites — even “friending” one’s own child.
“Most of my adolescent patients’ parents are on their respective Facebook pages, and most teens accept this as a standard,” said Dr. Clarke-Pearson.
The popularity of social networking on the Web has led researchers to identify a new phenomenon known as Facebook depression. Classic depression symptoms may develop in teens who spend too much time on social networking sites. Fueling the condition is the desire to be accepted by peers as well as the intensity of the online experience. The clinical report notes that sufferers are at risk for social isolation and may be unduly influenced by Web sites promoting substance abuse or sex.
In the past, parents were advised to prevent problems by placing the computer in a public area of the house to better monitor adolescents. But Internet applications on cell phones and laptops have made that advice obsolete, according to Drs. Clarke-Pearson and O’Keeffe.
They said parents don’t need to hover to protect their teens. Instead, parents can create a family plan to guide online use. Such a plan would call for regular family meetings to discuss online topics. Parents would check privacy settings and online profiles. Inappropriate posts would be discussed with an emphasis on citizenship and healthy behavior, not punitive action. Rules, such as how much time is spent on the computer, would be followed by adults and children alike.
The plan also should respect the age restriction of Web sites. Thirteen is the minimum age for most social media sites. Allowing kids to falsify their age puts impressionable children at risk of viewing inappropriate content, including advertising. It also sends a mixed message about Internet safety and lying.
“Once you go down that path, the kids think you have no backbone,” Dr. O’Keeffe said. “You can’t recover from that.”
CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming and Social Media by Gwenn O’Keeffe, M.D., FAAP
AAP Internet safety resources site, http://safetynet.aap.org
Parent Plus: “Teach children to beware of bullies in the cyber-schoolyard,” March AAP News, http://aapnews.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/32/3/25-e