Sorting out social media issues

Facebook and other social media
websites can enrich children’s lives, but they could also be hazardous to their
mental and physical health, says a report today from the American Academy of

In the group’s first report on
children and social media, it encourages paediatricians to talk to parents and
children about kids’ use of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter,
MySpace, video gaming sites, virtual worlds such as Club Penguin and Sims,
blogs and video sharing sites such as YouTube.

The report says these sites and
other technology can be useful to kids for staying in touch, socializing,
entertainment and even doing homework. They can enhance kids’ creativity and
help them develop technical skills.

They also can lead to cyber-bullying,
depression and exposure to inappropriate content, the report says.

And too much time spent online can
squeeze out important activities such as homework, physical activity and sleep,
the group adds.

“We are acknowledging that this is
a health issue — it isn’t just a technology issue,” says paediatrician Gwenn
O’Keeffe, co-author of the report, in the April issue of Pediatrics, out today.
She’s also the author of CyberSafe, a book published by the American Academy of

“Parents have to get a handle on
what their kids are doing online and offline, especially tweens and teens,”
because they have a limited ability for self-regulation and time management,
she says.

According to one recent poll, 22
per cent of teens log on to their favourite 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, the report says. About 75 per cent of teens now own cell



Among the problems paediatricians
and parents need to watch for:

A new phenomenon called ‘Facebook depression.’ Some children who
are at risk for social isolation, anxiety or depression seek connection online.
If they don’t find it, they may become depressed, Ms O’Keeffe says: “Their lack
of connection in the online world amplifies what’s happening in their offline

Cyber-bullying. This is defined as
spreading false, embarrassing or hostile information about another person. This
can cause depression, anxiety, severe isolation and even suicide in children,
she says.

Exposure to inappropriate content
that may influence their self-esteem or body image or cause them to engage in
risky behaviours, such as smoking and substance abuse, she says.

Sexting. The sending, receiving or
forwarding of sexually explicit messages, photographs or images via cell phone,
computer or other digital devices can have legal and other repercussions, so
they always needs to be taken seriously, Ms O’Keeffe says.

As soon as children go online,
parents need to begin teaching them about the digital world, Ms O’Keeffe says.
But “parents also need to encourage their children to unplug from the online
world and experience the real, unplugged one.”