By Caroline Novas
For better or worse, social networking is an almost unavoidable part of everyday life. The number of people joining social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Plus is growing exponentially, especially among youth. In fact, 73% of American teens aged 12-17 use social networking sites. Due to the prevalence of social media usage among youths, many parents wonder if it is having beneficial or negative effects on their children. Like many things in life, the answer is not so clear-cut: it’s yes and no. Facebook both promotes mental well-being and undermines it.
Social media benefits adolescents by enhancing their communication skills and social connections. Social media sites and apps allow adolescents to make new friends, exchange ideas and pictures, develop new interests and experiment with new forms of self-expression. When youth use them, they pick up on basic social and technical skills that are important for functioning in day-to-day society. Furthermore, most adolescents use social media to build on social communication and friendships taking place at school or during sports and other activities, and extend it to the online world. They are not necessarily meeting new people so much as enriching their currently existing friendships. Because of this, barring teens from social media use deprives them of valuable learning experiences and limits their social lives.
Why Should Parents be Worried?
Not all social media sites are healthy environments for adolescents, however. Bullying, cliques, and sexual experimentation are just as prevalent online as offline. Because children are not good at self-regulation and are susceptible to peer-pressure, social media sites can be dangerous places to “hang out.” The minimum age to access social media sites is 13, because the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits websites from collecting information on children younger than 13 without parental permission. However, age is based on self-report, so children younger than 13 can simply lie about their age and open accounts.2 “Facebook depression” has joined the concerns people have about children’s social media use. A recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics defines Facebook depression as “depression that develops when teens and preteens spend time on social media sites and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression due to the intensity of the online world.”2
The factors that may contribute to depression are the various measures of popularity that Facebook creates. In particular, Facebook can make kids feel inadequate due to the “in-your-face” friend tallies, status updates, and pictures of others having a good time. For well-adjusted kids, however, social media can have the opposite effect, boosting their already positive feelings about themselves. 2
Why is this? As it turns out, well-adjusted children tend to put their best foot forward, broadcasting only their best attributes and qualities online. They choose what to reveal about themselves and filter or minimize negative characteristics. They are able, in other words, to promote a somewhat deceptively positive sense of self. In response, their friends’ feedback, comments, and posts tend to be overwhelmingly positive, creating a positive feedback loop. For less well-adjusted children, constantly reading about the seeming success of their Facebook “friends” can make them feel worse than in real life where, at least, their peers visibly fail from time to time. The positive spin that popular kids put on Facebook ends up widening the disconnect between how less well-adjusted or unpopular kids view others and how they view themselves. However, it is unknown whether Facebook Depression is a distinct phenomenon or an extension of depression adolescents feel in other circumstances. The American Psychiatric Association does not list Facebook Depression (or Internet addiction) in its diagnostic manual.
What Parents Can Do
Most parents do not fully comprehend social networking sites. And, with many parents’ busy schedules, this leaves many kids unsupervised in the online world, which can lead to problems. Parental supervision is as valuable online as it is offline in instilling values and safeguards. In order to help their children, parents should check in regularly with their children to ensure that their online behavior is appropriate. Although it is tempting to accomplish this through frequent monitoring, this can be counterproductive if it results in distrust between parent and child. Alternatively, parents should talk about appropriate media use early and build a relationship of trust surrounding social media. This way, when there is a problem your teen will be more likely to talk to you. For additional information on guiding your children through the internet and social networking, visit the following websites. Common Sense Media Connect Safely Safeteens.com
Although Facebook and the online world can affect some children negatively, a growing body of research shows substantial benefits of social media. The online world provides many opportunities to develop social and technical skills that teenagers need to function in today’s society. Parents should talk to their children about appropriate media use and build an atmosphere where children are comfortable speaking with their parents about their problems, whether from social media or other sources.
Ito M, Horst H, Bittani M Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings From The Digital Youth Project. Chicago, IL, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning; (Nov 2008)
Amy L. Gonzales and Jeffrey T. Hancock. “Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Effects of Exposure to Facebook on Self-Esteem.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. January/February 2011, 14(1-2): 79-83.