About Medicine: Teaching teens and tweens about online risks

Today’s tweens and teens are connected to one another, and to the world, via digital technology more than any previous generation. Recent Studies show that 95 percent of teens ages 12-17 are online, 78 percent own cell phones, one in four teens has a tablet computer and nine out of 10 teens has access to a computer at home. While today’s adolescents may be more digitally savvy than their parents, their lack of maturity and life experiences can quickly get them into trouble. With back to school here, it is especially important to visit both the benefits and risks of social media and internet use in our children.

There are certainly many benefits to social media and internet today and especially for our children. They can stay connected with friends and family, make new friends, share pictures and exchange ideas. They use social media sites for networking for school projects and studying, they can express themselves through blogs, community engagement for charity and volunteering, and improving tolerance by exposing them to diverse ideas and people. It also helps with their health and the mobile technologies have already improved this by increasing medication adherence, better disease understanding and fewer missed appointments.

Despite all of the benefits, there are obviously clear risks. Although it may increase their communication overall, there is a worry that they are spending more time online then in face to face conversation. This may change the ways our children interact and their ability to converse in person.

Cyberbullying is a really big issue and is the most common online risk for all teens. It is deliberately using digital media to communicate false, embarrassing, or hostile information about another person. It can have profound consequences such as depression, anxiety, severe isolation and tragically, suicide.

The disbursement of too much information has lasting consequences as well. Sexting is a risky problem with reports that 20 percent of teens have sent or posted inappropriate photos or videos of themselves. This can have not only personal consequences if the recipients “over-share” but legal consequences depending on participants’ ages. In the case of social media sites “what goes online, stays online” and can affect future college and job acceptance.

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There is a new diagnosis that is being researched called Facebook depression that is the development of symptoms of depression after spending a long time on social media sites. The thoughts are that teens compare their lives to others, have less in person interaction and they go online to “escape” the real world.

Finally, time spent on social media affects sleep. Social media use is linked with less hours of sleep in teens as well as having a TV in the bedroom and having a cell phone. One thought is that the light from screens affects circadian rhythms making it difficult to fall asleep after use.

We know that social media does have positive influences on our children and technology is certainly not going away so we have to have proactive ways to manage the risk in our children. Parents should learn about these technologies first hand. There is simply no better way than to have a profile yourself. It will also enable you to “friend” your kids and monitor them online. Also having an open discussion with kids and let them know that their online presence is something that you want and need to know about. Keep computers in a public part of your home so you can monitor what they are doing and how much time they are spending there. Emphasize that everything sent over the internet or cell phone can be shared with the entire world, so it is important they use good judgement. Consequences can reach into adulthood and in some cases are legal ones. Have your kids show you their privacy settings and check in regularly to make sure they haven’t changed. Set limits for internet and cell phone use and learn the signs of trouble: skipping activities, meals and homework for social media; weight loss or gain; a drop in grades. Check chat logs, emails, files and social networking profiles for inappropriate content, friends, messages and images periodically. It is extremely important that you are transparent with your children so they know what you will be doing. Be sure to stress the importance of not using their phone when driving or doing other activities that require their full attention. Have a discussion with children of appropriate age about sexting. Make sure they understand that it is unsafe and can have legal consequences in some instances. And finally try to limit screen time one to two hours before bedtime.

Technology is here to stay and if used appropriately can be an adjunctive to a rich and meaningful life. If we teach our kids responsible social media and internet use early, it can contribute to a richer and more meaningful connection with people and the world. There is plenty of more in depth resources for this online especially through the American Academy of Pediatrics website and I encourage all parents to be proactive in their engagement with their children. I also encourage all parents to discuss this with their family physician for further information.

Michel ColaciComment