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Social Media Poses Both Opportunities and Dangers for Teens

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Elizabeth Morgan

Elizabeth Morgan says young people interacting online are “experimenting with their public persona.”

Worried parents have all kinds of reasons why their kids shouldn’t participate in social media, Elizabeth Morgan said. But perhaps it might be helpful for them to consider why they want to.

“Researchers have asked teenagers this, and the typical reason is to connect with other people. Their primary motivation is to maintain connections, and establish new connections, with other people,” said the assistant professor of Psychology at Springfield College.

Teens with niche interests or unique challenges also benefit from social media, she said, because they might not find similar support locally.

“A lot of times, they’re using it to get information and learn about some experience they’re going through from people online who may not be in their immediate social network,” Morgan said. “That’s one of the positives. Think about a teenager with a chronic illness in Western Mass., where not many people experience that chronic illness. They can connect with people in Missouri, California, or Florida who are going through the same thing, to get information about what they’re going through.”

Still, whatever the reason, young people are also doing something developmentally important when they interact online — they’re experimenting with their public persona. And that can present social and emotional pitfalls.

“For some teens and tweens, social media is the primary way they interact socially, rather than at the mall or a friend’s house,” said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, co-author of a clinical report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), called “The Impact of Social Media Use on Children, Adolescents, and Families.”

“A large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cellphones,” O’Keeffe added. “Parents need to understand these technologies so they can relate to their children’s online world — and comfortably parent in that world.”

Morgan said the idea of self-presentation in social media, on sites like Facebook, Instagram, and many lesser-known outlets, represent a developmental task. “Teenagers are always testing different identities, different personas face to face, and social media provides a way to do it in a safe place where they can manage their presence.”

But how safe is it, really?

“There are all kinds of risks, in the different choices kids make, in how they’re going to be seen and categorized by their peers,” said Dr. Barry Sarvet, chair of Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center. “Kids have to deal with that anyway, but the online factor makes it quantitatively different; their choices potentially have bigger, broader consequences because of how viral things can get online. Misunderstandings happen more easily online; things are misconstrued.”

The preteen and teen years come with an array of hazards that aren’t exclusive to the Internet age, he went on, from character disparagement and low self-esteem to being stalked or threatened by truly dangerous people.

“Parents need to be aware of and help kids understand the dangers, but they’re not brand-new dangers; there have always been risks of kids being exploited, stressed, and depressed because they’re being stigmatized and misunderstood. And there have always been social networks, circles of friends, cliques. Social media is just another expression of that — but it’s got higher stakes in some ways, because of the permanence and irrevocability of what happens online.”

The solution, Sarvet says, isn’t necessarily to block teenagers’ access to the online world, but to become partners with them and help them manage it. Because social media, while a potentially valuable tool, poses some complex issues at a particularly vulnerable age.

Pursuit of Happiness

Morgan cited a study indicating that some people who use Facebook are happier than those who don’t — or, perhaps, happy people are more willing to share their lives on social networks — but, interestingly, excessive Facebook use may be linked with depression.

“Facebook can be a great experience that leads to connection, but it can also lead to depression, partly because of social comparison to other people who are presenting their best side,” she said, adding that those effects are not pronounced when people compare themselves to immediate friends and family, but spike when making comparisons to casual acquaintances, perhaps because that ‘best side’ seems more like reality.

When teens make the same comparisons to their peers, it’s even worse, she said, because social comparison is already a big issue in adolescence, so it makes them feel worse about themselves. “They might say, ‘look, he has 200 likes; I only have 100,’ or ‘she has 600 friends; I only have 550.’”

That said, it’s difficult to define exactly when young people should enter the social-media world because there’s such a broad range of personal development.

Dr. Barry Sarvet

Dr. Barry Sarvet says the choices young people have when it comes to social media come with “bigger, broader consequences” than ever before.

“Some are late bloomers, some early bloomers,” Sarvet told BusinessWest. “Kids will say, ‘all my friends are on it, so I should be allowed.’ But parents have to consider how mature their child is and how vulnerable they might be and their level of judgment. One 13-year-old can have really good judgment and be very safe and be able to follow guidelines and understand why they’re important, and another 13-year-old may be completely unready to have that freedom and power.”

It’s natural, he went on, for kids to desire more freedom than they’re ready to have. “Parents have to constantly make those difficult decisions, how much freedom to give them. A lot of times, kids have to earn the trust. Parents may say to their kids, ‘I want to trust you, but you haven’t earned it because you haven’t been responsible or careful about things, so I don’t feel you’re ready right now.’

“We live in a world where a lot of personal sharing is going on, and kids don’t always understand the impact of what they put online or even just messaging with each other, not realizing things can be forwarded; even those Snapchat images can be captured and saved,” Sarvet added. “The complexity of people’s privacy, understanding the importance of privacy, is something that takes a lot of judgment, which kids don’t always have.”

Lapses in judgment can wreak havoc on young lives, O’Keeffe said, adding that young people can harm their reputations and safety by posting personal and inappropriate information. Meanwhile, information about sites they visit may be captured and used to target them with advertising.

“Cyberbullying happens as well. That’s the dark side of the situation,” Morgan told BusinessWest. “Really, it’s on the parents to try to help manage their children’s experience and be aware of what’s going on, so if there do happen to be instances of cyberbullying, the parents can help the child deal with it.”

Straight Talk

The AAP has issued a series of guidelines pediatricians can use to help families navigate the social-media landscape, including:

• Advise parents to talk to children and adolescents about their online use and the specific issues that today’s online kids face, such as cyberbullying, sexting, and difficulty managing their time;

• Advise parents to work on their own ‘participation gap’ in their homes by becoming better-educated about the many technologies their children are using;

• Discuss with families the need for a family online-use plan, with an emphasis on citizenship and healthy behavior; and

• Discuss with parents the importance of supervising online activities via active participation and communication, not just via monitoring software.

Some house rules can be as simple as using the Internet only in a common room of the house, or not logging on past a certain hour at night, as not to disrupt sleep, Morgan added. “There are so many ways to manage these experiences beyond saying, ‘no social media at all.’”

She added, however, that it’s just as important for parents to develop trust and strong communication with their children, so they feel comfortable approaching the adults with problems that arise.

“Be sure your child knows what can happen and, if it does, that you’re available to help them deal with it, whether that involves blocking a person from your network or pressing charges, if stalking is going on, or just learning how to respond to, or ignore, negative statements and emotionally cope with them. Parents can be a good resource for all of that.”

Sreedhar Potarazu, an ophthalmologist and CEO of VitalSpring Technologies Inc., recently wrote at CNN.com that young people are growing up to expect immediate response, gratification, and notification, all hallmarks of social media, and their brains no longer have time to evolve; instead, they must adapt to change in an instant.

“The results are distressing. The difficulties of growing up have never been so public,” he wrote. “Social technology provides a platform where things can run wild. Imagine the stress of high school — the competition for popularity, the pressure to fit in, the judgmental nature of social activities — at an accelerated pace.”

He suggests a number of steps parents can take to help their children navigate this world, such as:

• Create more structured forms of social media that prevent children from diving into, say, Snapchat right from the start;

• Provide a way for parents and administrators to get feedback on their kids’ online use without intruding on privacy and alert them to impending dangers;

• Add courses on social technology and responsibility to school curricula, teaching adolescents that what they do online exposes them to the whole world — sometimes forever, and perhaps affecting their job searches and choice of a mate; and

• Ease up on the pressure, and persuade teens that that they don’t have to market themselves constantly, and that social media can be a mechanism for fostering collaborative relationships, rather than competition, aggression, and irresponsible behavior that contributes to anxiety and depression.

A Question of Trust

Sarvet stressed, however, that the online world is not an intrinsically bad place.

“I think there’s still a lot of richness,” he said. “I tend to encourage parents to be open-minded about this stuff because I think a lot of parents are very suspicious and skeptical of it and focus more on the horrible things that can happen, and they’re also very unrealistic about their ability to control it.”

To wit, a recent Pew Research Center study found that 92% of teens go online daily, and 24% say they are online “constantly.” Common Sense Media reports that 90% of teens have used social media, and 75% of them have profiles on social-networking sites. In another study, CNN found that some 13-year-olds check their social-media feeds 100 times a day.

“I think it’s important for parents to recognize that their kids are in school, out in the world, and they should assume — even if they have a rule that their kids are not allowed to be on Facebook — that their kids might be on Facebook,” Sarvet said. “They should accept that they’re not in charge all the time of their kids’ use of social media, and they can’t be. If you accept that, the focus becomes less on having rules and more on helping them understand the complexity of what they’re doing online.”

Barring teens outright from social media, he suggested, only manages to destroy the lines of communication that might come in handy someday, whether dealing with serious issues like cyberbullying and sexting or simply learning more from one’s teens about the online world, which sites are popular, and what kids today are doing there.

“If they have a nice, respectful relationship with their kid, it allows the parent to have a guiding influence and an opportunity to learn what kids are doing and have an open dialogue about it,” Sarvet went on. “When parents are overly nervous and, in response to this nervousness, start making these strict rules, it just invites kids to find ways to get around the rules, and they no longer talk to their parents about it, knowing you’ll be mad at them.”

In short, he told BusinessWest, “control what you can control,” and the rest is building trust.  No one said it would be easy, in a culture where positive connections and lurking dangers are both just a few clicks away.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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