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Social Networking May Affect Kids’ Health

Report Urges Parents to Communicate and Participate When Kids Socialize Online

Benefits and Risks of Sharing in Cyberspace

In setting up the new guidelines for doctors to talk to patients and their parents about social networking, the report stresses that there are plenty of healthy reasons to connect online, including nurturing friendships and community engagement. Community engagement includes such areas as raising money for charity or getting involved in the political process, learning in virtual classrooms, and even taking advantage of the privacy afforded by the Internet to get answers about health issues that might be hard to bring up face to face.

But there can be significant downsides, too.

In particular, negative interactions like cyberbullying and harassment can lead to depression, anxiety, severe isolation, and even suicide.

In the Common Sense Media poll, one in five teens admitted to sexting, which can have legal consequences. The report notes cases of teens charged with felony child pornography and labeled as sex offenders for passing explicit messages or pictures.

Still other studies have investigated a relatively new phenomenon called “Facebook depression” -- signs of depression that develop after young adults spend a great deal of time on social media sites.

A lack of boundaries coupled with a lack of sophistication about privacy controls on sites that may lead to a lasting loss of privacy is also a problem for kids online, the report found.

“As a result,” the authors write, “future jobs and college acceptance may be put into jeopardy by inexperienced and rash clicks of the mouse.”

In the Common Sense Poll, for example, 16% of parents said they thought their child had shared information online they might not normally share in public while 28% of kids admitted to oversharing.

“This is a good recommendation for pediatricians and parents to have a conversation to encourage parents to be more involved in their children’s lives. And for kids and youth these days the online domain is really important to them, so it makes sense,” says Amori Yee Mikami, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Virginia, who was not involved in developing the new guidelines.

Some Kids More Vulnerable Online Than Others

Mikami and colleagues assessed the friendships and popularity of 172 13- and 14-year-olds from the same school, and then friended those kids eight years later on Facebook and MySpace to study how they were interacting.

They found that those who were happy and well-adjusted in the real world were most likely to be getting along well in the virtual one.

And kids who struggle with relationships at school and home are likely to be struggling with social networking, too.

“It’s the same kids who are at risk for problematic social interactions face to face, at the mall, at school in after school activities; it’s probably the same category of youth at risk,” Mikami says.

“Things to watch out for would probably be youth who are displaying other types of psychopathology like depression, anxiety, aggressive behavior, or delinquent behavior, who seem to be hanging out with the wrong kids or kids who are loners and don’t seem to have friends or good friends or who get picked on or teased a lot,” she tells WebMD.

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