Let’s face it – we all depend on our computers and handheld devices for communication, news, and entertainment. We are so glued to our mobile phones that I’ll bet one is only inches from your hand right now. We are adults with the smarts (supposedly) to know when, where, and how to use the world of cyberspace intelligently and safely. But school-aged children do not necessarily have the maturity or wisdom to comprehend this overly-accessible, complicated cyber life. The impact on kids using social media is now such an issue that pediatricians have added this routine question for troubled adolescent patients: “Are you on Facebook?”
One factor parents underestimate is that children’s behavior offline is reflected, if not exaggerated, online. If they are smart and thoughtful, they will enjoy an enhanced world of knowledge at their fingertips, but if they are bullies, the temptation to exploit this behavior is downright scary.
When handled well, social media has its rewards and offers incredible opportunities for personal and social growth. Unmonitored, online behaviors such as sexting and viewing inappropriate content can lead to serious consequences, including depression and even suicide attempts. One doctor describes how just by taking away a troubled child’s access to online activity, their anxieties slowly disappeared, with no meds necessary. The following are findings from subject matter experts, including The American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Communications and Media, medical doctors, and law enforcement.
• Communicating with loved ones. FaceTime with grandparents and loved ones is worth a thousand unspoken words, especially if they’re out of town. This may be the most cherished tool for those separated by circumstances and distance.
• Learning opportunities. Most schools use social media to allow students to connect on group projects, collaborate on fundraisers, share ideas, and learn through blogs and podcasts.
• Artistic and musical endeavors. Students can easily share, show and discuss their creativity with real-time actions, ongoing productions and issues with like-minded artists.
• Privately search health information. Excellent resources previously available only in public libraries are available to youth on topics such as sexually transmitted infections, personal stress, chronic anxiety, and even support groups for those who gain comfort in knowing they are not alone.
• Less time for healthy activity. Increased screen time is associated with higher rates of childhood obesity, behavioral problems, poor physical activity, and poor school performance. As parents increase their screen time on phones, TV, computers, or video games, their children tend to do the same.
• Your life is an open book. When using a handheld device, if you don’t disable your location app, every picture you post carries information that reports the exact whereabouts of your location, in real time. Have you ever wondered how an unwanted someone conveniently “just shows up” at the same spot as you?
• Enhancing bad behavior. Unmonitored negative behaviors can manifest over time, including cyberbullying, gossip addiction, clique-forming, and even sleep deprivation. These are similar to offline problems of youth, but instead of whispers in the hallway, things transfer rapidly, in public, and to a wider audience in cyberspace.
• Unseen advertisers and stalkers. Continuous clicks by unassuming users can be tracked by advertisers or hackers who gauge perceived habits not just on products and services, but also by what you “Like” on Facebook timelines, videos, and photos.
ADVICE TO PARENTS: What goes online, stays online.
The most important advice to children-turned-teens-turned-adults: What goes online, stays online. Using social media may be fun and easy at first, but child experts cannot stress enough that parents need to discuss privacy issues with their youngsters. Someone’s digital footprint can stay online forever (even if deleted), and a once rogue teenager’s post can be accessed by a future employer or college professor if they dig deep enough. Job offers and college acceptance decisions can be made based on information or photos never meant for their professional eyes.
Don’t rush to give your child online access. Most parents are aware that age 13 is the minimum age for most social media sites, as determined by Congress in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
On a positive note, many online relationships and activities flourish when one rule is observed: before pressing the send button to post online, share that photo, or chat through instant messaging, ask yourself, “If this message/text/photo were seen by my parents, would it make them proud?”
Being techno-savvy isn’t necessarily the path to a successful life. Stay connected but be cautious online, and minimize your cyber activity. Don’t let that cold handheld device become so friendly that you forget what it’s like to hold a warm hand or listen to a real voice, one that charges your heart without having to plug into it.
Abella Carroll is a freelance writer.