While social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube bring benefits to children and teenagers, such as helping them develop communication and technical skills, they can also expose them to danger and risk, such as cyberbullying and depression, according to a new report written by American pediatricians.

The report, which appears in the April issue of Pediatrics, the peer-reviewed, scientific journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), says doctors are in an ideal position to encourage children to use social media in a healthy way, and to help parents and families understand and engage with their use of social media while also monitoring for potential problems.

The report outlines the latest research in what is now one of the most common activity of today’s children and teenagers.

By social media, the authors include any website that allows users to interact socially. Perhaps the most well known site that does this is Facebook, where once you register you become one of 600 million users who can create a personal profile, invite friends to join your circle and share messages, images, and notifications. It is also a useful way for members of interest groups to stay in touch.

Other websites that the authors defined as social media include MySpace, Twitter, blogs, gaming sites and virtual worlds like Club Penguin, Second life and the Sims, and also video sites like YouTube.

The abundance of these sites, which has grown exponentially in recent years, gives huge scope for today’s young people to find entertainment, and develop important skills.

A Common Sense Media Poll in 2009 found that more than half of American teenagers log onto their favorite social media site at least once a day, while 22% do so at least ten times a day.

75% of teenagers now own cellphones, with 54% of them using them for texting, 24% for instant messaging, and 25% for social media access.

The growth of social media has been so rapid and their presence in children’s everyday life is now so pervasive, that:

“For some teens and tweens, social media is the primary way they interact socially, rather than at the mall or a friend’s house,” report co-author Dr Gwenn O’Keeffe told the press.

“Parents need to understand these technologies so they can relate to their children’s online world – and comfortably parent in that world,” urged O’Keeffe.

O’Keeffe and colleagues point out that a significant part of young people’s social and emotional development now occurs while they are using the Internet or on their cellphones.

However, the report authors also urge parents to be aware that not all social media sites are healthy environments for children and teenagers.

They suggest pediatricians are in a unique position to help children and their parents and families understand why it is important to look out for potential problems such as exposure to inappropriate content, cyberbullying, “Facebook depression,” and sexting (sending sexually explicit messages or images, mostly by cellphone).

The report recommends that doctors speak to families and advise parents to:

  • Talk to their children and teenagers about use of the Internet, and the issues that face kids online today.
  • Talk specifically about cyberbullying, sexting and the pressure that social media use can put on managing time.Consider the need for a “family online-use plan” that stresses citizenship and healthy behavior.
  • Be aware of the need to supervise their children’s online activity, and to do this actively, by participating and discussing it with them, and not just by using monitoring software.

“Some young people find the lure of social media difficult to resist, which can interfere with homework, sleep and physical activity,” said O’Keeffe, “parents need to understand how their child is using social media so that they can set appropriate limits.”

The report does much to stress the benefits of social media, such as developing communication skills, facilitating social interaction and improving technical competence. Other benefits include helping young people find opportunities to link up with community activity like volunteering, and helping them attain a sense of identity.

Social media is also increasingly being used to supplement, and in some cases replace, classroom learning methods.

However, we also need to bear in mind that many young people lack capacity for self-regulation, this matures later. Adults need to monitor and supervise the environments they are exposed to because they can become unduly influenced by peer-pressure.

As they experiment with social media, children may come across sites and situations that are not appropriate to their age, and there is some evidence that when this happens, they engage in risky behavior.

Social media also provides opportunities for cyberbullying and sexting.

The report says that young people who tend to be more at risk offline are also more at risk online.

O’Keeffe and colleagues also explain how unwittingly, young people may harm their reputations and safety if they post personal and inappropriate information on social media sites.

“Clinical Report – The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families.”
Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, and Council on Communications and Media.
Pediatrics, published online 28 March 2011.

More info: parenting tips on talking to kids and teens about social media and texting (from AAP)

Additional source: American Academy of Pediatrics AAP (28 Mar 2011).

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD