Social media is a part of the majority of our lives. A recent poll found that nearly 80% of mothers (with children under 18) were using social media. And it turns out if you’re over the age of 11 or so and live in the United States, you may be more likely to be involved in social media than an organized sport. As adolescents work to define their identities, they are doing more and more of this “work” online. Adding to the long list of things to talk about in the 15-20 minute check up with your doctor, social media and the use of new media technology is moving closer to the top of the list. It’s obvious but not necessarily instinctive. On a typical day in clinic, I have to ask a patient to put down or turn off their phone to talk with me. Plenty of teenagers think it’s perfectly normal to text or surf while talking with their doctor about birth control or concussions or vitamins or driving. Some parents do, too.

This month, an AAP report was published urging pediatricians to be involved in discussions with families about where we find ourselves with social media. The lead author, Dr Gwenn O’Keefe, wisely explains that social media has moved past being a technology issue and started to become a health issue. I entirely agree; simple math tells us that when we’re spending hours every day existing on social networks, it will inevitably affect our health. As you know, I’m an evangelist of social media for social change. My take is not that social media is all bad for me or for children and families. But it’s not all good, either. Clearly when you capture over 500 million peoples’ attention (Facebook), you’re onto something relevant.  Social media really is social and can help plenty of teens connect with peers, improve their technical skills, and augment their communication skills. Yet, of course, like anything in life, when moderation goes out the window, so does the pure benefit. Here’s an outline of the report and rationale of why I believe you, as a parent, should get involved with social media and why it matters.

How Teenagers Use Social Media:

Using social media isn’t just about a minute here or there on Facebook. According to the report, “22% of teens log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day, and more than half of adolescents log on to a social media site more than once a day.” And more? Seventy-five percent of teens have a cell phone with 1/4 of them using their phones for social media and more than 1/2 of them using them to text.

Because teenagers are well…teenagers, they may have limited capacity for self-regulation and they may be uniquely susceptible to peer pressure. They are also uniquely capable of being phenomenal social people. The social environment online can be particularly persuasive, and possibly particularly risky, too. Teens may become so entrenched in online socialization and social networks that they become addicted or deprive themselves of sleep. Or so connected online that they forget to connect offline.

This presents challenges for how your kids use social media. But also, how you do, too. Helping your kids has a lot to do with what you model technology and social media. Helping your child with social media will demand you get online, too. Don’t let your discomfort with technology, your age, or your limited time get in the way of exploring the frontiers your children are mastering and exploring as well. The report reminds us that children’s online lives are an extension of their offline lives. Don’t sign out or miss out of a huge part of your child’s life by casting social media aside.

Benefits of Social Media:

The report details the many benefits of social media for our children:

  • Opportunities for community engagement through raising money for charity and volunteering for local events, including political and philanthropic events;
  • Enhancement of individual and collective creativity through development and sharing of artistic and musical endeavors;
  • Growth of ideas from the creation of blogs, podcasts, videos, and gaming sites;
  • expansion of one’s online connections through shared interests to include others from more diverse backgrounds (such communication is an important step for all adolescents and affords the opportunity for respect, tolerance, and increased discourse about personal and global issues); and
  • Fostering of one’s individual identity and unique social skills

Further, adolescents are able to use online sources to search for information about health, interact with their doctor privately and confidentially, and they can use their phones to increase medication adherence, obtain better disease understanding and miss fewer appointments! This week for example, I helped a teen put a daily alarm in her phone for her birth control pills. A perfect use of these tools and devices!

Risks of Social Media:

The report also details risks of social media use. They include:

  1. Cyberbullying–when “digital media is used to falsify, embarrass or provide hostile information about another person.” Current data holds that online bullying is as common as real-life-offline bullying. Ask your child about this. Has this happened to them or a friend? How did it make them feel?
  2. Sexting–when “sending receiving or forwarding of sexually explicit messages, photographs or images via a cell phone computer or other digital device” occurs. The report notes that 20%  of all teens have sent or posted nude or semi-nude photographs or videos of themselves online. Talk to your teen about this risk. Explain that any photo they put online should be considered public. In the wrong hands it could be shared anywhere.
  3. Facebook Depression–depression that develops when preteen and teens spend a great deal of time on social media and exhibit classical symptoms of depression. My worry is what I mentioned in the video…the idea that if life feels less that perfect offline, do teens go online for refuge? And when they do go online and the experience is less than perfect, does it put them at greater risk?
  4. Privacy Concerns–preteens and teens may share more information than necessary, lose privacy without knowing it and put themselves in harm’s way. Talk to your children about the privacy settings they have in their networks, and what they can do to protect themselves.
  5. Lifelong Digital Footprint-everything online is public (ultimately) and everything your children post may remain. Remind them that things they say today could be accessed or read by a college admission officer, a future employer, or a future friend. Remind them that details they share online may be retrievable forever. Show your child examples. Google and search with your children to demonstrate what you can find and the transparency that exists on the internet.
  6. Advertising–Social media sites advertise products and services. Your teen may not even notice what is being posted; remind them it is there to influence purchasing decisions or behaviors.

Tips To Help Your Family Thrive With Social Media:

  • Follow the law regarding minimum age requirements for networks. Most social media sites are allowed only after 13 years of age, without parental supervision under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. There are some sites designed for young children. Don’t help your child falsify their identity. I can’t think of a situation in which this would help…
  • Evaluate the sites in which your children wish to participate. Join each site along with them, use the tools, fiddle with the privacy, and stay connected as long as your teen does. That way you can speak their “language” and keep up to date about changes and concerns you may have. And changes or challenges your child may have.
  • Make rules and curfews for your phones, computers, and tablets, etc to use social networks. Consider a 9pm bedtime for all digital devices so they don’t interfere with sleep and you can re-connect in real life at the end of the day. Commit to turning off phones during meals, and stashing them in the back seat when driving.
  • Check in weekly with your children as to how using social media makes them feel. Does your child seem energized and excited when on Facebook? Or do they seem more withdrawn? Are they concerned about their numbers (followers)? Is it hard for your child to stay off these sites? Check in, adapt to your child’s experience and design your rules to support your family’s experiences and challenges.
  • Model good behavior. Turn your phone off during dinner. Put your phone “to bed” before you go to sleep. Take holidays from your devices whenever you can.
  • Don’t focus on punishing your children for online behavior. Focus on talking about good citizenship, healthy behaviors, and rules that need to adapt or be altered as time unfolds and challenges present themselves.
  • Remember to live offline, too! However ridiculous that sounds, get outside every single day, leave the phone at home whenever possible, and remember to encourage your children to spend time in person “IRL” (in real life) with those they love.

What’s your take? You on Facebook, Twitter, or a virtual world? You clearly read a blog; I know that much. Thank you, sincerely…