If you’ve ever asked a seven-year-old to teach you how to use your computer, you’re not alone. We are living in a time of lightning-fast change. Our kids’ understanding of computer technology seems to be intuitive, almost magical. They “get it” instantly, while we sometimes feel lost. In many ways, this familiarity with computers will serve our children very well. They’ll be better suited for the world to come because the equipment they will be expected to use won’t intimidate them.

But what about socially? Can kids gain the social skills they need to function in the real world, when they’re spending all their time online? Do social networking websites teach social skills? Can Facebook replace face-to-face? And… how much Facebook is too much?

In an issue of Pediatrics, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, and The Council on Communications and Media published a report called, The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families. According to the report, the use of social media has both benefits and risks for children today.

Benefits of Social Media Use for Children:

  1. Socialization. Do social networking websites teach social skills? Well, yes, of a sort. The social life of adolescents today takes place in a digital world in large part. In this video Dr. O’Keeffe suggests that parents refrain from looking at that as a bad thing. Yes, it’s different than the world in which we grew up, but that doesn’t make it “bad” or “wrong”. This is how it is, and learning to navigate the social mores of that digital world can be a good thing for our kids.
  2. Communication. I often think about how the world has changed for children who are housebound due to illness or disability. Because of today’s social opportunities online, these children can lead a fuller life than they could have in the past.
  3. Education. The world is a very small place these days. My family lives in Spain, and I live in the United States, but with the Internet, we can communicate more easily and more frequently than ever before. The same is true for students who can connect with students across the globe, creating a richer understanding of the world. “Facebook and similar social media programs allow students to gather outside of class to collaborate and exchange ideas about assignments,” says the report in Pediatrics.

Risks of Social Media Use for Children:

  1. Facebook Depression. Some children begin to exhibit the classic signs of depression after spending a lot of time on social media sites, a phenomenon that researchers have dubbed as “Facebook Depression.” Researchers believe that the teen’s social life on networking sites like Facebook could trigger depression. If a child is the victim of cyberbullying, he or she is more likely to grow depressed.
  2. Inappropriate sexual activity. Sexting, or sending sexually explicit messages, pictures, or videos, is sadly all too common these days among teens and even pre-teens. Worse, digital pictures can be around forever, and can be shared in the blink of an eye. Before your child understands the implications of what she’s done, every student at her school can see that naughty picture she sent to her boyfriend.

Social networking sites can also mask the true identity of child pornographers and sexual predators.

What Should Parents Do?

  1. Monitor your children’s Internet use. Many sites, including Facebook, state that users under age 13 must have parental permission to create an account. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to respect these age restrictions. There are sites for younger children that you and your children can evaluate together to determine whether it’s appropriate. Some examples include Disney sites and Club Penguin.
  2. Talk to your pediatrician. Start a dialogue with your pediatrician about your child’s Internet use and any concerns you may have. We can help parents and children navigate the digital age in a way that keeps the emphasis on positive online social interaction.
About the Author

Dr. Katalenas

Dr. Katalenas is a pediatrician and owner of The Pediatric Center of Round Rock and the author of the book "The Step Up Diet: From Scratch… The Quality, Quantity, and Timing Solution to Childhood Obesity", a guide to healthy cooking and eating for busy families.