Engaging in various forms of social media is a routine activity that research has shown to benefit children and
adolescents by enhancing communication, social connection, and even technical skills.
Social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace offer multiple daily opportunities for
connecting with friends, classmates, and people with shared interests. During the last 5
years, the number of preadolescents and adolescents using such sites has increased
dramatically. According to a recent poll, 22% of teenagers log on to their favorite social
media site more than 10 times a day, and more than half of adolescents log on to a
social media site more than once a day.
Seventy-five percent of teenagers now own cell phones, and 25% use them for social
media, 54% use them for texting, and 24% use them for instant messaging. Thus, a large
part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet
and on cell phones.
Because of their limited capacity for self regulation and susceptibility to peer pressure,
children and adolescents are at some risk as they navigate and experiment with social
media. Recent research indicates that there are frequent online expressions of offline
behaviors, such as bullying, clique-forming, and sexual experimentation, that have
introduced problems such as cyberbullying, privacy issues, and “sexting.” Other problems
that merit awareness include Internet addiction and concurrent sleep deprivation.
Many parents today use technology incredibly well and feel comfortable and capable with
the programs and online venues that their children and adolescents are using.
Nevertheless, some parents may find it difficult to relate to their digitally savvy youngsters
online for several reasons. Such parents may lack a basic understanding of these new forms
of socialization, which are integral to their children’s lives. They frequently do not have the
technical abilities or time needed to keep pace with their children in the ever-changing internet landscape. In addition, these parents
often lack a basic understanding that kids’ online lives are an extension of their offline
lives. The end result is often a knowledge and technical skill gap between parents and youth,
which creates a disconnect in how these parents and youth participate in the online
BENEFITS OF CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS USING SOCIAL MEDIA
Socialization and Communication Social media sites allow teens to accomplish
online many of the tasks that are important to them offline: staying connected with friends
and family, making new friends, sharing pictures, and exchanging ideas. Social media
participation also can offer adolescents deeper benefits that extend into their view of
self, community, and the world, including:
1. opportunities for community engagement through raising money for charity and
volunteering for local events, including political and philanthropic events;
2. enhancement of individual and collective creativity through development and
sharing of artistic and musical endeavors;
3. growth of ideas from the creation of blogs, podcasts, videos, and gaming sites;
4. expansion of one’s online connections through shared interests to include others
from more diverse backgrounds (such communication is an important step for all
adolescents and affords the opportunity for respect, tolerance, and increased
discourse about personal and global issues); and
5. fostering of one’s individual identity and unique social skills.
Enhanced Learning Opportunities
Middle and high school students are using social media to connect with one another on
homework and group projects. For example, Facebook and similar social media programs
allow students to gather outside of class to collaborate and exchange ideas about
assignments. Some schools successfully use blogs as teaching tools, which has the benefit
of reinforcing skills in English, written expression, and creativity.
Accessing Health Information
Adolescents are finding that they can access online information about their health concerns
easily and anonymously. Excellent health resources are increasingly available to youth
on a variety of topics of interest to this population, such as sexually transmitted
infections, stress reduction, and signs of depression. Adolescents with chronic illnesses
can access Web sites through which they can develop supportive networks of people with
similar conditions. The mobile technologies that teens use daily, namely cell phones,
instant messaging, and text messaging, have already produced multiple improvements in
their health care, such as increased medication adherence, better disease
understanding, and fewer missed appointments. Given that the new social
media venues all have mobile applications, teenagers will have enhanced opportunities to
learn about their health issues and communicate with their doctors. However,
because of their young age, adolescents can encounter inaccuracies during these searches
and require parental involvement to be sure they are using reliable online resources,
interpreting the information correctly, and not becoming overwhelmed by the information
they are reading. Encouraging parents to ask about their children’s and adolescents’ online
searches can help facilitate not only discovery of this information but discussion on these
RISKS OF YOUTH USING SOCIAL MEDIA
Using social media becomes a risk to adolescents more often than most adults
realize. Most risks fall into the following categories: peer-to-peer; inappropriate
content; lack of understanding of online privacy issues; and outside influences of third party
Cyberbullying and Online Harassment
Cyberbullying is deliberately using digital media to communicate false, embarrassing,
or hostile information about another person. It is the most common online risk for all teens
and is a peer-to-peer risk.
Although “online harassment” is often used interchangeably with the term “cyberbullying,”
it is actually a different entity. Current data suggest that online harassment is not as
common as offline harassment, and participation in social networking sites does not
put most children at risk of online harassment. On the other hand, cyberbullying is quite
common, can occur to any young person online, and can cause profound psychosocial
outcomes including depression, anxiety, severe isolation, and, tragically, suicide.
Sexting can be defined as “sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages,
photographs, or images via cell phone, computer, or other digital devices.” Many of
these images become distributed rapidly via cell phones or the Internet. This phenomenon
does occur among the teen population; a recent survey revealed that 20% of teens have
sent or posted nude or seminude photographs or videos of themselves. Some teens who
have engaged in sexting have been threatened or charged with felony child
pornography charges, although some states have started characterizing such behaviors as
juvenile-law misdemeanors. Additional consequences include school suspension for
perpetrators and emotional distress with accompanying mental health conditions for
victims. In many circumstances, however, the sexting incident is not shared beyond a small
peer group or a couple and is not found to be distressing at all.
Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression,”
defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of
time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of
depression. Acceptance by and contact with peers is an important element of adolescent
life. The intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in
some adolescents. As with offline depression, preadolescents and adolescents who suffer
from Facebook depression are at risk for social isolation and sometimes turn to risky Internet
sites and blogs for “help” that may promote substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, or
aggressive or self-destructive behaviors.
PRIVACY CONCERNS AND THE DIGITAL FOOTPRINT
The main risk to preadolescents and adolescents online today are risks from each
other, risks of improper use of technology, lack of privacy, sharing too much information, or
posting false information about themselves or others. These types of behavior put their
privacy at risk.
When Internet users visit various Web sites, they can leave behind evidence of which sites they
have visited. This collective, ongoing record of one’s Web activity is called the “digital
footprint.” One of the biggest threats to young people on social media sites is to their digital
footprint and future reputations.
Preadolescents and adolescents who lack an awareness of privacy issues often post
inappropriate messages, pictures, and videos without understanding that “what goes online
stays online.”As a result, future jobs and college acceptance may be put into
jeopardy by inexperienced and rash clicks of the mouse. Indiscriminate Internet activity also
can make children and teenagers easier for marketers and fraudsters to target.
INFLUENCE OF ADVERTISEMENTS ON BUYING
Many social media sites display multiple advertisements such as banner ads, behavior
ads (ads that target people on the basis of their Web-browsing behavior), and
demographic-based ads (ads that target people on the basis of a specific factor such
as age, gender, education, marital status, etc) that influence not only the buying tendencies
of preadolescents and adolescents but also their views of what is normal. It is particularly
important for parents to be aware of the behavioral ads, because they are common
on social media sites and operate by gathering information on the person using a
site and then targeting that person’s profile to influence purchasing decisions. Such powerful
influences start as soon as children begin to go online and post. Many online venues are
now prohibiting ads on sites where children and adolescents are participating. It is
important to educate parents, children, and adolescents about this practice so that
children can develop into media-literate consumers and understand how
advertisements can easily manipulate them.
ON TOO YOUNG: MIXED MESSAGES FROM PARENTS AND THE LAW
Many parents are aware that 13 years is the minimum age for most social media sites but
do not understand why. There are 2 major reasons. First, 13 years is the age set by
Congress in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which prohibits Web
sites from collecting information on children younger than 13 years without parental
permission. Second, the official terms of service for many popular sites now mirror the
COPPA regulations and state that 13 years is the minimum age to sign up and have a
profile. This is the minimum age to sign on to sites such as Facebook and MySpace. There
are many sites for preadolescents and younger children that do not have such an
age restriction, such as Disney sites, Club Penguin, and others. It is important that parents evaluate the sites
on which their child wishes to participate to be sure that the site is appropriate for that child’s
age. For sites without age stipulations, however, there is room for negotiation, and
parents should evaluate the situation via active conversation with their preadolescents
In general, if a Web site specifies a minimum age for use in its terms of service, the
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages that age to be respected.
Falsifying age has become common practice by some preadolescents and some parents.
Parents must be thoughtful about this practice to be sure that they are not sending mixed
messages about lying and that online safety is always the main message being emphasized.
THE ROLE OF PEDIATRICIANS
Pediatricians are in a unique position to educate families about both the complexities
of the digital world and the challenging social and health issues that online youth experience
by encouraging families to face the core issues of bullying, popularity and status,
depression and social anxiety, risk-taking, and sexual development. Pediatricians can help
parents understand that what is happening online is an extension of these underlying
issues and that parents can be most helpful if they understand the core issues and have
strategies for dealing with them whether they take place online, offline, or, increasingly, both.
Some specific ways in which pediatricians can assist parents include:
1. Advise parents to talk to their children and
adolescents about their online use and the
specific issues that today’s online kids face.
2. Advise parents to work on their own
participation gap in their homes by
becoming better educated about the
many technologies their youngsters are
3. Discuss with families the need for a family
online-use plan that involves regular family
meetings to discuss online topics and
checks of privacy settings and online
profiles for inappropriate posts. The
emphasis should be on citizenship and
healthy behavior and not punitive action,
unless truly warranted.
4. Discuss with parents the importance of
supervising online activities via active
participation and communication, as
opposed to remote monitoring with a “netnanny”
program (software used to monitor
the Internet in the absence of parents).
In addition, the AAP encourages all
pediatricians to increase their knowledge of
digital technology so that they can have a
more educated frame of reference for the
tools their patients and families are using,
which will aid in providing timely anticipatory
media guidance as well as diagnosing