Sexting. Twittering. Blogging. Podcasting. Just a few short years ago these didn't even exist in the popular vernacular. Now they're de rigueur for parents whose kids have embraced them. That's according to guidelines published in this issue of Pediatrics.
Rick and I admit in this week's podcast that of course, we can be viewed as social media adopters, and perhaps therefore part of the problem. We like to think we're on the positive side of the equation but are well aware of the potential negatives related to these burgeoning new communication tools. Case reports of online bullying resulting in suicide or suicide attempts are admittedly rare, but concerning. Far more prevalent is preoccupation with social media such that face to face interactions are minimized, and kids may forgo meals, homework, sports and social commitments in order to maintain their online presence.
The Pediatrics paper cites statistics that about 22% of kids log onto their social media site 10 or more times per day. Seventy-five percent have their own cell phone, and 25% of that number use the phone to access social media. So-called internet addiction is a real possibility, along with chronic sleep deprivation, already endemic in teenagers.
Sexting may be the most concerning of these trends. Sexting is defined within the paper as "sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photographs, or images via cell phone, computer or other digital devices." Not only is sexting unethical, it's also frankly against the law in many states, thus exposing children to the threat of prosecution. In spite of this, about one in five teenagers admits to having "sexted" nude or semi-nude images of themselves.
Perhaps the most potentially damaging of online interactions for children is the privacy issues, or lack thereof, of information posted on the Internet, which has quite a long half-life. Personal information can be circulated, modified, or fabricated and years later, result in difficulty for the subject in finding employment or gaining admission to college or graduate school. Rather a severe penalty for what may have seemed initially harmless and free-spirited.
Given all these hazards, what's a responsible parent to do? Get involved, the guidelines urge. Become aware and expert about social media sites and use them yourself, and insist on 'friending' your children on their sites as well as allowing them to 'friend' you. Insist that they use the computer in visible and trafficked places in your home, and check in on their texting and posting regularly. If you're having trouble you can always employ a computer program for this purpose.
There's no question social media also teaches our children valuable skills about communication and is here to stay. So add social media savvy to the rest of the skill set necessary to be a responsible parent in 2011. Ah, for the days of the dial telephone...
Other topics this week include airport scanners and radiation in this issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, and how best to manage obesity in frail elders as well as a new medication for hepatitis C in NEJM. Until next week, y'all live well.