Social Media and Your Child’s Safety: Report from the American Academy of Pediatrics

On March 28 of this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released their newest report, “Clinical Report—The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families.”

How can parents keep their kids safe when using social media? The AAP defines a social media website as any site “that allows social interaction.” This can include social networks like Facebook or Twitter; gaming sites and virtual worlds such as the Sims, Second Life, or Club Penguin; video sites like YouTube; and blogs.

The Popularity of Social Media

Numerous studies show the great growth and popularity of social media in the last five years.

  • More than half of adolescents log on to a social media site more than once a day.
  • 22% of teens log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day.
  • 75% of teens own cell phones, and 25% of them use their phones for social media, 54% use them for texting, and 24% for instant messaging.

The Benefits of Social Media

The APP mentions several benefits of social media to preadolescents and adolescents.

  • Community engagement (involvement in charities and volunteerism)
  • Creativity (developing and sharing artistic and musical talents)
  • Comprehension (growth of ideas through the creation of blogs, podcasts, and videos, as well as opportunities for homework and group project collaboration)
  • Connection (diversifying connections based on shared interests)
  • Character (fostering one’s identity and social skills)

The Risks of Social Media

The AAP also warns parents that not all social media sites are healthy environments for teens and preteens. The report mentions four broad categories of risks for minors online: (1) peer-to-peer interactions, (2) lacking of understanding about privacy issues, (3) the influence of advertisements, and (4) inappropriate content.

  1. Peer-to-Peer – Peer-to-peer dangers include cyberbullying, sexting, and Facebook Depression.
    • Cyberbullying – The AAP calls cyberbullying the “most common online risk for all teens.” “Cyberbullying is deliberately using digital media to communicate false, embarrassing, or hostile information about another person.” Cyberbullying is not to be confused with “online harassment,” which is a more aggressive and less common. According to the report, cyberbullying “can cause profound psychosocial outcomes including depression, anxiety, severe isolation, and, tragically, suicide.”
    • Sexting – Citing a recent survey done by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the AAP says 20% of teens have sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves. When these photos or videos are shared outside of their intended audience, this can have far-reaching and devastating consequences, including legal ramifications. While some states have characterized this behavior as juvenile-law misdemeanors, other states have charged sexting teens with felony child pornography charges.
    • Facebook Depression – Facebook Depression is “depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites.” Facebook Depression happens when the intensity of the online world and an adolescent’s desire for acceptance and contact with peers collide. Like others who suffer from depression, these adolescents are at risk for social isolation which sometimes causes them to turn to the Internet for answers and support—perhaps leading them to risky content (promoting drug use, unsafe sex, and self-destructive behaviors).
  2. Privacy Issues – Internet users leave “digital footprints,” evidence of which sites they have visited and their activities on those sites. For instance, teens often upload photos and videos and share private information about themselves, their families, or their friends. These are privacy risks for adolescents. The APP says one of the biggest threats is a child’s future reputation. Unaware that “what goes online stays online,” children might later find their digital footprints put college acceptance and future jobs in jeopardy.
  3. Advertisements – Online advertisements are very targeted. Ads displayed can target people based on the type of website they are on, based on their browsing behavior, or based on the demographics they share about themselves. This not only influences what we buy but what we view as normal behavior. Often this bombardment of ads can start very young, as soon as children are introduced to the Internet.
  4. Inappropriate content – Because the focus of the report is what a child is exposed to in social media sites (not the entirety of the Internet), it only briefly mentions this risk, specifically citing sites that promote drug use, unsafe sex, or self-destructive behaviors.

Action Steps for Parents

While the report was not written primarily for parents, there are a number of action steps parents can glean from this research:

  • Know Your Child – Many online expressions are simply digital forms of offline behaviors and attitudes. Clique-forming in the real world can turn into digital forms of exclusion, which can lead to depression related to peer-acceptance. Making friends in the real world can turn into sharing too much information in the digital world. Bullying becomes cyberbullying. Sexual attraction and curiosity easily turns into consuming pornography or even sexting.
  • Learn the Technology – Parents should be aware of the nature of social media sites – both their potential benefits and their potential risks. While the online world can and does mirror offline interactions, it is nonetheless an unfamiliar form of socialization for parents. This digital divide is exasperated when parents are pressed for time or lack technical abilities.
  • Create a Family Online-Use Plan – The AAP report encourages families to create an Internet plan “that involves regular family meetings to discuss online topics.” The plan should emphasize what online “citizenship” and healthy behavior looks like, not just a list of don’ts and punishments. The plan should also include parental oversight of social media: Are inappropriate things being posted? Are the privacy settings set correctly?
  • Be Consistent – Parents can often send mixed messages about social media sites. For instance, the reason why Facebook’s and Myspace’s policies do not allow preteens to create profiles is because they are mirroring the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which prohibits websites from collecting data on children younger than 13 without parental consent. Some parents do not discourage their preteens from creating profiles, and thus send a mixed message about lying. Other parents discourage preteens from creating profiles on the pretext of social media sites being filled with untold dangers, which is actually not the basis for the policies.