Facebook and Twitter: How much social networking is too much?

michaelrich_small1-198x300Media expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he gave advice on how to handle playdates that involve age-inappropriate video games.

And now, here’s this week’s Ask the Mediatrician query:

Q: We feel “webbed out” of our teenage son’s electronic social life. Are you aware of studies tracking the psychological impact that technologies like Facebook and Twitter have on developing “normal” social skills?
Shut out by Social Networking in Manchester, MA

A: Dear Shut out by Social Networking,

This is a challenge felt by many parents today, but take heart: Social networking is attractive to adolescents in part because it is exclusive to them.  The teen years are all about establishing independence from your parents and becoming an individual.  Take a minute to think back to your teen years — I’m sure there was some kind of music or TV that defined your generation that your parents just “didn’t get.”  That probably made it even more attractive to you and your friends.  This is the same idea — a new kind of media that most parents just don’t take part in.  Seeing your son taking ownership of something new is developmentally normal, and that should comfort you.

Because this mode of communication is so new, research hasn’t had time to identify any long-term effects it might have on social skills. That said, preliminary data (see these studies: Teens and Social Media, the Digital Generation project) indicate that, for most kids, using virtual social environments actually helps improve their social skills. Therefore, my recommendation would be to avoid being judgmental and assuming the worst—the vast majority of young people’s interchange in these environments is benign and social in nature.

Social networking can certainly become a problem when used excessively or if your son strongly objects when you ask him to limit or stop using it—these can be warning signs of potentially addictive behavior. In order for him to have time left over to be able to pursue the wide variety of experiences he should have in his teen years, I recommend that adolescents spend no more than 1-2 hours per day with screens (including TV, video games, and computers).

Another thing you may be interested in doing is figuring out how people use these technologies to connect with others so that you have more knowledge about why he spends so much time with them.  In order to show him that you value his expertise in this area, you could ask him to teach you how to set up your own profile.  I suggest that you make it clear you’re not looking to spy on him, and that he doesn’t even have to be your friend on Facebook (that’s part of his life where he’s looking for privacy). However, do allow him to show how facile he is in this environment. In the process, he will share more about what he’s doing there, directly or indirectly, and you will have nudged open the door to communication about this space instead of forcing yourself through it or slamming it shut.
>>Recommended Video: 60 Minutes’ introduction to Facebook

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

How much time do your teens spend on social networking sites like Facebook? Do you think sites like these impact social skills? Share your experiences in the Comments.

In a response to this blog, Emily from Children’s Youth Advisory Program, says it’s not realistic for a teen to have only one to two hours of screen time.

Do you have a question about your child’s media use? Ask the Mediatrician today!

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