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Social Networking May Affect Kids’ Health

Report Urges Parents to Communicate and Participate When Kids Socialize Online
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 28, 2011 -- Cyberbullying, sexting, and so-called Facebook depression are a few of the reasons parents should tune in to what their teens and tweens are doing on social networking sites, pediatricians say.

A new clinical report, published in Pediatrics, outlines some of the key benefits and risks of social networking. It stresses the need for parents not only to talk to their kids about specific risks, but to participate with their kids on sites like MySpace and Twitter, rather than to leave monitoring up to software programs.

“Some young people find the lure of social media difficult to resist, which can interfere with homework, sleep, and physical activity,” says Gwenn Schurgin O’Keefe, MD, a Wayland, Mass.-based pediatrician, blogger, and health writer who co-authored the guidelines. “Parents need to understand how their child is using social media so they can set appropriate limits.”

O’Keefe is no dilettante in matters of adolescents and their cyber lives, either.

“I’ve had a few ‘a-ha’ moments as a mom with technology,” she tells WebMD.

She once had to summon her daughter to dinner via instant message after repeatedly calling, and failing, to steal her attention away from an online chat session.

“It was like she had become fused with the computer. She was so absorbed in what she was doing she was just tuned out,” O’Keefe says.

Parents Not Keeping Up

The new guidelines come on the heels of recent surveys that have revealed what appears to be a significant communication gap between parents and kids about social networking.

A report released by Australian researchers earlier this week, for example, which surveyed more than 1,000 middle-school-aged kids and their parents and teachers about online habits, found that nearly 95% used social networking sites, most often Facebook.

And while about half said they knew there was some element of risk in networking online, more than one in four considered the sites to be safe.

What’s more, almost half the students surveyed reported that they had not talked to their parents about their use of social networking sites, and nearly three-quarters said they hadn’t spoken to a teacher about it. About 80% of the parents in that survey said they had seen their child’s profile page at least once, however.

Similarly, a 2009 poll by the group Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based think tank that explores issues surrounding media use in youths, which questioned more than 2,000 teens and their parents about social networking, found that nearly one in four teens check these sites more than 10 times a day. Just 4% of parents knew that, however. About one in eight teens with Facebook or MySpace pages said that their parents didn’t know about the account.

When it comes to sexting, the practice of sending sexually explicit pictures or messages, a nationwide poll commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the magazine CosmoGirl found that 22% of teenage girls and 18% of teenage boys said they had posted or sent nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves. Thirty nine percent said they had posted explicit messages. Sixty-eight percent, however, said that disappointing family members would be a reason to be concerned about doing that.

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