Time and again, parents come to Dr. Michael Rich overwhelmed by the role that texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are playing in the lives of their children and adolescents.
“Most parents are coming with no idea or fairly misinformed ideas about what these media are,” said Dr. Rich, director of the center on media and child health at Children's Hospital Boston. “They're either lumping texting, Facebook, and Twitter – all of which behave differently – into one, or they don't want to know about it because they're scared of it. Others say they're so far behind in technology they could never catch up.”
Some report that their daughter is losing sleep and failing in school because she stays up until 2 or 3 a.m. texting her friends.
Others tell him that their son has becoming increasingly violent and disrespectful since playing war games online with friends and perfect strangers.
Still others inform him that their child has been cyberbullied by a classmate and refuses to attend school.
Welcome to the world of social media, a place Dr. Donald Shifrin calls the world's largest cocktail party, where you'll encounter every kind of experience and personality imaginable. It's not inherently good or bad, but rather “a great uncontrolled experiment on our children,” said Dr. Shifrin, a Bellevue, Wash.–based pediatrician who served as the American Academy of Pediatrics' consultant to Microsoft when it developed a family safety setting for Windows XP.
“There's no question that social media can make you a better person because there are various ways for you to send out things and ask, 'What does everybody think about this' and consider those responses in your decision making if indeed you're cognitively able to make a conscious and rational decision. But that's not usually the purview of most tweens and teens, who are messaging and texting as fast as their fingers can fly,” he said.
According to a 2009 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, young people aged 8–18 years spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes each day with TV, video games, or computers, an increase of 1 hour and 17 minutes over the average in 2004. In addition, 66% of these youngsters own a cell phone (on which they text or talk for another 2 hours each day), 76% of them have an iPod or other media player, and 74% of kids in grades 7–12 say they have a profile on a social networking site such as Facebook.
What about the long-term effects of social media on the development and behavior of today's children and adolescents? Experts interviewed for this story say there is no way to tell for sure what kind of impact routine use of social media will have on current children and adolescents as they become adults.
But one thing's for sure, said Dr. Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist who directs the Institute for the Future of the Mind at the Oxford Martin School, Oxford (England) University: “It's a given that it will affect the brain, because the human brain adapts to whatever environment it's placed in. If you're in an environment as different as the cyberworld is from the real world, I don't think there's any question that we'll adapt to it. The big question is, How will we adapt to it? Is it good or bad? What can we do about it?”
Social media have revolutionized the way children learn about the world and communicate with each other, said Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, a pediatrician and author of “CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Digital Kids in the World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media” (Elk Grove Village, Ill.: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010). Even families who struggle to put food on the table “will get their kids a digital device because they want them to be a part of society,” she said.
She describes Facebook as their “neighborhood hangout,” which “they do well if they get online in an age-appropriate way. You don't want a 10-year-old hanging out on Facebook because they don't have the social skills, and there are too many older people on it. But if you help them get online in an age-appropriate way, they learn how to post well. They learn how to interact better online than some adults do. It can be powerful.
“I have a theory that cyberbullying and sexting is partly our fault as adults because we're still catching up to the digital world, and we've never really taught kids how to use it well. It's kind of like putting them in a car without teaching them how to drive. So it's no wonder mistakes have happened.”