The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a report Monday, saying teenagers who over use social media, like Facebook and twitter, could be engaging in risky behavior, with long-lasting, negative consequences. To prevent social media from becoming problematic, the AAP recommends parents monitor, and when necessary, limit their children’s use of social networking tools and websites.
But before you confiscate your kids’ cell phones and delete their Facebook accounts, it’s important to note that the AAP acknowledges that social media can be a healthy part of kids’ communication, assuming they have the proper guidelines.
“Engaging in social media is a routine activity that research has shown to benefit children and adolescents,” the report reads. “Social media allows teens to accomplish online many of the tasks that are important to them offline: staying connected with friends and family, making new friends, sharing pictures, and exchanging ideas.”
Translation: It’s not the technology that dangerous, but how it’s used that can be harmful. Constant access to information is a double-edged sword, and parents need to be mindful of that when examining their children’s online activities. For every website offering homework help, there is a site that helps kids cheat on tests. The same phone that lets them text you when they’re running late from soccer practice can easily be used to send wildly inappropriate pictures to her crush from biology class.
Here are few of the social media pitfalls the AAP report singles out as being particularly troubling for kids.
• Cyberbullying. From the courthouse to the White House cyberbullying is big news. The old saying ‘kids can be so cruel’ comes to mind, but the anonymity provided by the internet can make matters much worse. Without directly witnessing how damaging their words can be, cyberbullies can often take their harassment to extreme levels.
• Body image issues. The number of young men and women with eating disorders is on the rise in this country. Considering social media’s obsession with celebrity, it’s hard to imagine that the countless pictures of waif-thin actresses and models that dominate Hollywood gossip blogs and the twitter-verse aren’t somehow connected. But the Web is guilty of more than promoting unattainable body types. Did you know are hundreds of ‘Thin-spiration’ websites and twitter feeds that actually promote Anorexia as a healthy lifestyle? If you’re concerned your son or daughter is developing an eating disorder, it’s recommended you speak with their pediatrician immediately.
• Facebook depression. In most cases social media isn’t the cause of mental distress in children, but it can exacerbate it. So is the case with “Facebook depression,” a new phenomenon described in the AAP report. According to researchers, children who are at risk for social isolation, anxiety or depression often strive to make connections online. If those connections don’t live up to their expectations the child can experience depression in real life, making things even worse for the child than before they logged on.
• Sexting. The most controversial (and possibly most damaging) social media activity for teens is the sending, receiving or forwarding of sexually explicit messages, photographs or images to each other. It’s never a good idea for children to be exposed to sexual material before they’re ready, but did you know it could also be a crime? There have been several court cases in America centering on minors who have created and/or distributed their own sexy images, which were deemed child pornography when discovered by authorities. The chance of police involvement over a racy mobile phone picture is slim, but if a dirty picture or message a teen created went public, it could be devastating. Unlike racy notes or photographs, which teens may have secretly exchanged in the past, blatantly sexual conversations and pictures can’t be destroyed once they’ve been put online, so it’s crucial for parents to bring up the serious repercussion of sexting with their teens, no matter how uncomfortable that talk may seem.
It doesn’t take an AAP warning for most parents to understand that they need to have a handle on what their kids are up to online. Still, the fact that pediatricians are formally recognizing the sway social media has over today’s teenager is further proof that parents can’t ignore their children’s online activity. You don’t need to be a computer expert or have a Facebook page to help your kids safely use these tools; you just need to be able to talk openly about them as a family. And unlike a lot the technology described in the AAP’s study, that’s parenting advice that won’t be obsolete in a year or two as technology evolves.