Unlike any generation before, today’s teens and pre-teens are hyper-connected. A recent publication from Common Sense Media, a non-profit focused on helping parents and teens navigate media and technology, has reported that teens are spending an average of 9 hours each day consuming media. No matter where they are, with a smartphone in their pocket, teens have access to a wealth of information and a network of their peers.

What Are Teens Doing Online?

Tweens and teens are heavy users of social media. Social networks including Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are among the most popular. Teens are using these platforms to gauge their social status, get peer affirmation, and feel connected with their friends.

Even when not posting on these networks or actively engaging with peers, teens are monitoring what others are doing, posting about, and sharing. The addiction to checking social platforms for updates comes from a fear that they might miss out on something or be excluded.

It’s important for parents to know that boys and girls tend to consume media in slightly different ways. Girls are more likely to spend more time on social media, while boys typically spend more time playing video games. The same fears of missing out and reliance on affirmation can be seen with networked gaming.

What Are The Risks?

Delayed Social & Emotional Development
Many teens today have the vast majority of their conversations online or via text. The lack of in-person interaction hampers their ability to learn social cues and navigate real conversations. Both of which can hinder their ability to handle conflict in a healthy way.

Inappropriate Sexual Behavior
“Sexting” or sending nude photos or videos online can have long term and legal consequences that teens may not foresee. According to a study by Drexel University, more than 50% of teens surveyed admitted that they had sent or received sexually explicit content via text. The study also found that the majority of those teens were not aware that they could be prosecuted for child pornography for sending photos of themselves or viewing nude photos of others under 18. If convicted, teens can face jail time and be required to register as a sex offender.

Bullying has existed forever, but cyber-bullying has taken the problem to a new level. Without the face-to-face interaction, it is much easier to be cruel. Another issue with cyber-bullying is that it is often anonymous. Even if teens tell their parents or ask for help it can be difficult to identify who is responsible. Bullies are creating fake profiles to send mean messages, share embarrassing photos, and spread rumors. The problem can be difficult to stop because even if the bully is blocked, they can easily create a new profile.

Low Self-Esteem & Depression
A new study on Facebook depression found that social media interaction or lack of interaction can affect self-esteem and has been linked to depression even among teens who are not being cyber-bullied. Social comparison can be devastating to teen egos, especially when comparing themselves to peer’s curated and photoshopped pictures. Not getting the expected number of likes and comments on a post can make a teen doubt their self-worth.

Suicide rates among teens are alarming and, according to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is reported to be the 2nd leading cause of death for kids ages 15-24. Teens who are suffering from low self-esteem, depression, or are the victims of cyber-bullying, are at a greater risk for suicide.

What Can Parents Do To Protect Their Kids Online?

Keeping your children offline is not a realistic solution to the dangers that exist, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to keep them safe. Use the following social media safety tips and guidelines to protect your teens and pre-teens when they are online:

Check Privacy Settings
All social platforms have privacy settings to limit what the public can see of your child’s posts. Make sure these settings are set to the most restrictive level so that only their friends are able to see their posts.

Set Limits
Make certain hours every week off-limits for all online activity. Meal times, homework and study time, and other family time should be phone free. Be sure to set a good example by putting your phone away too. Younger children should have more restrictions on screen time. Read more about the AAP’s recommendations for media use in children 12 and under.

Watch for Signs
Keep an eye out for warning signs of cyber-bullying. If your teen seems angry, sad, or frustrated after being online, doesn’t want to go to school, seems generally down or depressed, is hesitant to talk about what they are doing online, or you notice changes in their eating and sleeping patterns, there may be a problem.

Talk to Your Kids
The most important thing that parents can do to protect their kids online is to start the conversation about social media safety and keep lines of communication open.

  • Talk to them about what is and is not appropriate to share online.
  • Explain that the “highlight reel” people share publicly generally isn’t an accurate representation of their real lives.
  • Warn them of the potential legal consequences of sharing sexually explicit photos or videos online.
  • Let them know that they can and should come to you if they feel like they are being bullied online or offline.
  • Instruct them not to talk to strangers online.
  • Advise them not to share their passwords – even with their friends.

For more information on social media safety, helping kids build a healthy self-esteem, and depression, visit our blog. If you are concerned that your child is depressed or could be suicidal, contact your child’s pediatrician right away. At Woodburn Pediatric Clinic, we’re here to support your family.