MONDAY, March 28, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Social media Web sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, have become nearly inescapable facets of modern life, particularly for kids. And a new report suggests they can have real benefits and risks for children.
These sites, and virtual gaming worlds, allow users to interact with each other and they are where children and adolescents are spending a lot, if not most, of their free time, according to a report on the impact of social media just released by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The report, published online March 28 in Pediatrics, says that more than half of adolescents log on to a social media Web site at least once a day, and nearly one-quarter of teens say they log on to their favorite social media sites 10 or more times each day.
So, what kind of an impact is all that time spent fraternizing over technology instead of in person having on today's youth?
"Social media sites are mostly good. They're where kids socialize and where they connect together today," said report author Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, CEO and editor-in-chief of Pediatrics Now. "Kids' social spaces are shrinking. They don't have the places or the time to hang out like their parents did. Social media allows them to have time to reconnect. But, it has to be done in a way that's not all-encompassing," O'Keeffe said.
"For this to happen, it works better if kids have parents that they can engage with. The best rule of thumb is to be 'friends' with your child on Facebook. If a kid won't friend a parent, it's usually a sign that something's not right," she cautioned.
"Just like most people wouldn't let kids cook in the kitchen or drive a car without first teaching them, kids need to know how Facebook works and how to be on it appropriately. Don't assume that your kid knows all these things," she said.
Younger children may try to lie about their age to get on to sites, like Facebook, that have strict age limits, said O'Keeffe. She said parents shouldn't condone this. "Facebook is geared toward teen age and up. There are ads and content on the site for an older group. Normally, you wouldn't let your 11-year-old hang out with 16-year-olds. Plus, if you let younger kids on these sites, you're teaching them that it's OK to lie."
The report found that social media encourage kids to connect with each other and to express their creativity. They also provide an opportunity for learning, and are a way for teens to access health information. And, kids that have chronic illnesses can find others with their condition and get support they might not otherwise have access to.
But, these sites are not without risk, according to the report. One of the biggest risks is cyberbullying and online harassment.
"Technology is an extension of what goes on in the real world. Bullying was around before the Internet, but cyberbullying makes it easier," explained Dr. Brian Primack, an assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Primack also noted that children are hardwired to experiment and push boundaries. Today's technology may just make that easier. Primack pointed out that "sexting" is a good example of this. Sexting is defined as "sending, receiving or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photographs or images via cell phone, computer or other digital devices," according to the report.
"Kids have always wanted to look at nude pictures, and today, taking and sending a picture can be done in a second," Primack said, adding that such pictures could come back to haunt children years later.
"We need more technology infrastructure, and pediatricians need to be ready to intervene and help educate young people and their parents on how to be more media literate, and how they can evaluate the types of things they're exposed to," said Primack.
Another potential risk of social media has been dubbed "Facebook depression." When preteens and teens spend too much time on social media sites, they may begin to show classic signs of depression, such as changing sleep and eating habits, experiencing mood swings, hanging out with different friends or becoming socially isolated, according to O'Keeffe.
O'Keeffe said that while parents need to have open discussions with their children and teens about their online media use, parents probably don't need to be "hypervigilant" about computer use. "We don't keep an eye on our children all the time in real life. At some point, we have to take a certain comfort in the way that we've raised them, and have that confidence that they'll make appropriate choices," she said.
Both experts suggested that if you're concerned about your child's or teen's use of today's technology, your pediatrician can likely help you resolve the issue.
Here's more from the American Academy of Pediatrics on teen use of social media and the problem of sexting.