Parents typically take their child to the pediatrician for an annual well visit or for an acute illness because doctors are medically trained to diagnosis and treat complications of the human body. More recently, however, pediatricians haven’t just been treating ear infections, RSV and broken bones, they’ve been diagnosing and dealing with Social Media Syndrome, conditions that are every bit as real and potentially harmful as fevers and chickenpox.

Faced with the realization that social media-including cell phones, text messaging, YouTube and Facebook-is here to stay, and permeates the lives of many, if not most, of today’s American teens, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a clinic report in March 2011 of the impact of social media on children and their families, with recommendations for pediatricians and parents.

Technology is Great, Right?
The AAP’s report acknowledges that there is a role for the Internet and social media in the lives of teens. Social media websites (Facebook, MySpace) and communication tools (cell phones, text messaging) allow teens to share common interests, participate in fundraising efforts, expand their artistic or musical creativity and foster their own identity. Some schools even use blogging as a teaching tool to help students learn to write for an audience (and not rely on “text talk” abbreviations as a way to get an idea across).

The role of the Internet cannot be underplayed here. Both parents and teens alike understand the value of Googling and looking up information online. When was the last time you or your child used the Encyclopedia Britannica to look up something? With the world literally at their fingertips, our children’s ability to access information is mindnumbing. And just think: for most of our children, such instant gratification is normal and natural; they know no other way to look up information (card file, anyone?) or even communicate.

Too Much Info
This constant ability to find information-for homework and about classmates alike-has drawbacks. Children have too much access to information, and they often have too much electronic access to each to each other.

When we were teens, bullying occurred in school halls or the parking lot. Insults were exchanged, fists flew, hair was pulled. There was a very physical aspect to bullying that did not make it right, but that gave the bullied child a chance to fight back.

Today that bullied child can’t fight back because of the nature of the Internet. The speed with which hurtful words can be spread and the computer or cell phone behind which a bully can hide have completely changed the nature of bullying.

The AAP’s report says such cyberbullying is the most common online risk for all teens. Teens who experience cyberbullying can experience depression, anxiety, social isolation and, in extreme cases, suicide. If you think cyberbullying isn’t a real problem, then think again.

Unfortunately, the Internet isn’t the only place where teens engage in risky behavior. Cell phones, with the ability to send and receive photos, have created a phenomenon known as “sexting,” sending sexually explicit photos of oneself (or someone else) to others. As unbelievable as this practice may seem, a 2010 teen survey found that 20% of teenagers had sent partially nude or nude photos of themselves via cell phone or Internet. Law enforcement officials don’t know what to do with this type of behavior. Some states consider sexting a felony (a form of child pornography), while others have created a new category for it, juvenile-law misdemeanor.

The AAP report states that medical practitioners now observe depression in teenagers that is not brought on by typical teen angst, but by Facebook. Researchers coin this symptom “Facebook depression,”
and teens who experience it are at risk for isolation and depression and may turn to inappropriate online resources that promote substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, or aggressive or destructive behaviors. Unless parents monitor their child’s Facebook usage and ensuing behavior, they won’t know their child is depressed.

Our teens may know how to navigate the Internet, update their Facebook profiles and forward email chain letters, but many don’t know about the footprint, or trail, they leave behind that makes them exposed and vulnerable.

When they’re surfing the Internet or chatting online, they often share too much information about themselves. Sometimes they post inappropriate or too-personal details about themselves that is then accessible to those outside of their immediate circle of friends. Other family members, future employers and others learn much more about that teenager than is right or necessary. Similarly, the information that teens type into websites can be easily mined by marketing companies, or worse, broken into by computer hackers.

A parent may wonder why and how it is so easy for their child to a create Facebook account and access so many websites. If their child is under age 13, then he shouldn’t be able to create his own account or access many websites. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prohibits websites from collecting information from children that are under 13 without their parents’ permission, though of course it’s all too easy for a child to simply click “yes” when asked if he is over 13. This is why it is imperative that parents monitor their child’s Internet usage and know which websites he visits and accounts he sets up.

Pediatricians’ Role
Social media and the Internet don’t seem to be doctors’ areas of expertise, so why has the AAP felt the need to publish this clinical report? They believe pediatricians are in a singular position to help parents “face the core issues of bullying, popularity and status, depression and social anxiety, risk taking and social development.” Specifically, they recommend that pediatricians:
1) Advise parents to talk to their children about the Internet
2) Advise parents to become better informed of the various technologies their child uses and is exposed to
3) Discuss with parents the need to have regular family meetings to address social media issues and check online posts
4) Discuss with parents the importance of active online monitoring via talking with their child instead of using Internet software programs to remotely monitor their child’s use.

Just as pediatricians need to keep current with medical technology, they now need to keep current on social media technology; they can’t advise parents if they don’t know what they’re talking about or don’t
know resources to recommend.

Keeping our teenagers safe online takes concerted effort on the part of parents, schools and pediatricians
alike. Remember, you are the parent, and you have the right-and responsibility-to know what your child is doing online. If you are concerned about your child’s affect or behavior as a result of being exposed to too much social media or technology, then speak with your pediatrician.

You may also be interested in:

From issue: 27/05-06