Social Networking Linked to Depression in Teens?
April 4, 2011 by Katie LeClerc Greer
Last week the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a new clinical report, “The Impact of Social Media Use on Children, Adolescents and Families ”, which warns parents that social networking sites can potentially fuel depression in some teenagers. As parents, how seriously do we take these latest findings? Do we act on them? Do we brush these claims off? Do we ban our teens from popular networking sites? There is a realistic and healthy approach to these latest findings that will help to answer these questions.
Take a Deep Breath – Your Best Line of Defense is Education
First, let’s not go crazy – the media has already done a great job of that for us. Once these findings were published, it was impossible to turn on the morning news without seeing headlines such as, “Facebook is Leading Cause of Depression in Teens!” or “Have a Depressed Teen? It’s Facebook’s Fault.” In this clinical report, the AAP takes a healthy approach to kids and their involvement on social networking sites by pointing out many of the positive effects in addition to the negative ones. While this report is extensive, the bottom line is that children and adolescents are using social networking sites at increasingly unprecedented rates. Therefore it’s important for parents to be aware of what these sites entail, and recognize some social networking sites may not be healthy for kids to be using at such a high volume.
Many pediatricians note that parents will often express their concerns about their children’s involvement with social media, something that helped to prompt this report. The AAP encourages parents to get involved; the days of burying our heads in the sand and hoping for the best when it comes to our kids being on social networking sites are long gone. Education is paramount when it comes to kids and social networking. While it can be overwhelming at times, parents are truly doing their children a disservice by not learning how these sites work and how their kids are using them. “Learning” does not necessarily mean instantly becoming an active participant in these social networking sites (if you don’t feel comfortable doing so), and can be as simple as asking questions, reading articles, and asking the experts – your kids – how they are using these sites.
Parents Need to Realize, Acknowledge and Act On the Risks
There are certain risks that come along with social networking sites – both for kids and adults. The difference is, adults can recognize some of these risks and take appropriate actions to prevent them, or deal with them as they come up. Developmentally, kids often lack these abilities. Therefore parents have to help make some of these decisions for them and intervene before it’s too late.
The report discusses the dark side of social media, such as cyberbullying and sexting, and says that because kids are so entrenched in social media, too much exposure to these negative aspects can be potentially harmful. The AAP provides a list of recommendations for parents that include things like:
Learn about the technologies yourself, so you know what your kids are doing.
Ask questions about their computer/phone usage.
Make sure your kids understand the implications of hitting the “send,” “share” or “save” button because posting/texting/emailing may not just stay between two people, there is massive potential for it to be shared with a large number of people with the click of a button.
Facebook Anxiety – How Can It Be?
I travel the country speaking to kids about all forms of social media and technology and believe it or not, it’s true – social media is now a real, living, breathing part of their lives that can cause a lot of anxiety. Often times, what happens on Facebook is more talked about in school than a Friday night at a friend’s house. Things are said instantly, and are viewed by hundreds, possibly thousands, of people with one click of a button.
Anxiety? How can kids have anxiety about a social networking site? With sites like Facebook, kids often have no control over what people are posting about them, which is where some anxiety can come from. Here’s an example:
I was once asked to consult with a 13-year-old girl who had been absent from school for one week following spring break. The mother had talked with the Principal and told him there was an incident on Facebook that took place when they were on vacation (where they had no access to the Internet or cell phones). I spoke with the girl, and she told me that before she left on her family vacation, she had a sleepover with some of her friends and admitted that she had this huge crush on a boy in their grade. She left for vacation, and when she came back she immediately checked her Facebook page and saw a whole thread of comments written by her friends, discussing her crush on this boy. At one point the boy she had a crush on also chimed in and said that he didn’t like her “in that way” and she was instantly humiliated. She felt so humiliated that she couldn’t bring herself to go to school for an entire week.
Due to the fact she had no access to her Facebook account while she was away, all of this was happening without her knowing and was possibly viewed by hundreds of her friends and her friend’s friends. Unfortunately there are no settings on Facebook that allow you to approve comments, pictures or videos before they’re actually posted to your page, everything has to be done after the fact which terrifies a lot of kids. I often bring this story up in presentations, and students have told me that they’re extremely nervous about this sort of thing happening to them. Some students say they will disable their Facebook page entirely when they know they won’t have access to it for a certain amount of time. These fears are real, and are shared by kids throughout the country.
How Do I Protect My Kids from Social Networking Anxiety and Depression?
Like the AAP, I believe that there are many healthy and fun aspects to social media. Today, it’s also not entirely realistic to think we can block it altogether as a prevention mechanism because sooner or later, social media will become a part of your child’s life (if it isn’t already). However, the clinical report by the AAP does point out some very serious potential consequences of social networking, especially because it’s such a large part of teen’s and ‘tween’s daily routine. I believe a healthy dose of social media is one that is limited and monitored constantly by parents.
A parent that I consulted with once told me that he noticed his daughter would be “extremely moody” after she spent sometime online. Thankfully this moodiness sparked his curiosity, and he later found out that she was being bullied by a few girls on her softball team via Facebook and through email. They were all talking about how she wasn’t going to make the team, and suggesting (publically, on Facebook) that she look for a different sport to play. She never shared this with her family, but her mood was enough to trigger concern. Thankfully her family reached out to school administrators and were able to address the issue, along with changing some things at home. They now constantly monitor all three of their kids’ computer use, and restrict it to one hour per day. They have installed monitoring software on their computers to keep track of what they can’t readily see, and have also disabled the Internet capabilities on their phones. The family reports there have been no incidents since these new family rules were enforced; more importantly, they have a much happier and healthier daughter.
Today, it’s simply not enough to be “friends” with your child on Facebook; there are currently settings that allow them to make you part of a group that only has access to limited things. As the AAP recommendations suggests, keeping computers centrally located within your house is a good first-step to monitoring what your kids or doing. However, it can’t just stop here. With the rising popularity of smartphones and other Internet-ready phones and devices (like iPads and handheld gaming devices) we need to be monitoring this activity as well. With cell phones, kids have the ability to take pictures or videos and upload them instantly to social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace; yet another aspect of social media that is getting a lot of kids into trouble.
We have acknowledged that the instant and public nature of social media can be a source of anxiety – and potentially even worse – for teens and ‘tweens. Something as simple as paying attention to their moods can be extremely helpful in the battle against this. It’s amazing how many breakthroughs parents can make by simply paying attention, rolling up their sleeves and getting involved whenever possible in this digital world we live in.
Katie LeClerc Greer is the former Internet Safety Program Coordinator for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, and former Intelligence Analyst for the Massachusetts State Police. Her nationally recognized Internet/technology safety programs have been delivered to thousands of students, parents, school staff and law enforcement agencies around the country. Katie is the Director of Content and Internet Safety at www.WhatsWhat.Me, a “kids-only” Website that provides safe, secure social networking for kids ages 7 to 13 and utilizes patent-pending facial recognition technologies, moderation and kid-friendly features. WhatsWhat.me is compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and fosters an age-appropriate, “no-bullying allowed” community while teaching positive online behavior, Internet safety and related life skills.