Kids and teens use the internet and social media so much nowadays, that parents often wonder if they would survive a week without it. Luckily, as these activities become more common, we have been learning more about their benefits and risks. In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of internet use, the best practices to create a positive relationship with internet use, and how parents can talk to teenagers about their internet and social media engagements.
Teenager Social Media and Internet Use Statistics
Everyone is probably tired of hearing and reading that technology is everywhere and that kids are born with cell phones stuck to their hands. But how common is it really? Here are some statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for kids of aged 12 to 17 years.
- 93 out of 100 kids are online.
- 75 out of 100 kids have a cell phone.
- 97 out of 100 kids play video games.
And here are some statistics from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
- 4 out of 5 family homes own at least one video game device.
- 76 out of 100 teens use at least one social media website.
- 70 out of 100 teens use multiple social media websites.
It’s easier to understand the strong presence of technology devices and the internet have on teenagers when you understand these numbers. Technology is here to stay. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Like everything in life, there is more than one side to this story.
How technology affects children’s and teenagers’ lives
Children and teenagers face unique risks when they explore the online world because of their increased susceptibility to peer pressure and their limited ability of self-regulation. Recently we have learned that online, kids tend to reflect some of their offline behaviors. For example, clique-formation, bullying, and sexual experimentation.
Parents are increasingly smarter with the internet since many grew up with the Internet themselves. Technology is very fast to change, though. Even for parents who feel comfortable using the Internet, it becomes hard to relate to what kids do online.
Similarly, the concept that the kid’s “online life” as an extension of their “offline life” is hard to grasp by a lot of parents. This further separates families in terms of their understanding of how they use the Internet.
Advantages of the Internet (and social media)
- I want to start by highlighting the positive effects and benefits that technologic advances, use of the internet and social media can have on the life of kids.
- Community engagement opportunities (such as raising money for charity and volunteering for local events).
- The ability to share artistic and musical endeavors fosters creativity. Creating content such as blogs, podcasts, videos, etc. offers a chance to grow ideas.
- Globalization is a beautiful aspect of online use. The ability to connect with others from a pool of diverse backgrounds through a common interest. This communication is a very important opportunity to develop respect, tolerance and increased discourse about global issues.
- Enhanced learning opportunities. For example, using social media for group homework or blogs as a tool to improve reading, writing, and creativity.
- Accessing health information is easier than ever. Apps can be used to remind teens to take medication (increasing compliance!) or drink water. It can also be used for learning about topics health topics that can be of interest to teens such as signs of depressions and sexually transmitted infections.
Disadvantages of the internet (and social media)
- Cyberbullying is when social media is used to spread false, hostile and/or embarrassing information about some. This is the most common online risk for all teens.
- Sexting is sending, receiving or forwarding sexually explicit messages or photos via digital devices. Unfortunately, many of these images become quickly redistributed on the Internet and to other cellphones. An alarming 20% of teens admit having sent or posted nude or seminude images of themselves. Some teens have been pressed charges for distributing nude photos of a minor, but many states have laws that classify this behavior as a juvenile misdemeanor. If the legal scare is not enough, know that some other consequences include school suspensions and emotional distress in the victims of recirculated images.
- A phenomenon is arising that is proposedly called “Facebook depression”. With this, classic symptoms of depression develop when teens and preteens spend a lot of time on social media. Acceptance and contact with peers are a very important aspect of teenager life. The intensity of online social content consumption is thought to trigger depression in some adolescents. The same risks of “offline depression” ensue, such as social isolation and increase in self-destructive behaviors.
Two additional negative impacts of social media on the youth
I am adding a couple of additional advice on things to looking out on social media. I think these deserve their own section because they are unique problems that might have some long-term consequences on children and teenagers
Advertisements are everywhere. Ads are how the Internet makes money, and everybody’s got to pay rent. However, when teens are bombarded with behaviorally-targeted advertisements, their views on what they want and need to purchase are distorted, and so is their perception of what is “normal”. Make sure to teach kids about this so that they can be media-literate consumers in the future, and not so easy to manipulate.
“What goes online stays online”. It is important to let kids know that they post online is potentially going to stay there… forever. Many kids post inappropriate comments, fake information about themselves or others, or reveal “too much” information, not even considering that information can potentially leave a digital footprint.
Excessive use of social media and the internet.
It is possible to use electronic media in excess, but the definition of excess can be very tricky. In general, we want to make sure that kids are using electronic media (whether it be social media or other internet consumption) at the right age, in the right amount, and with the correct safety measures. If any these are breached, it can be a cause for concern of excess use.
Starting with the age factor, you want to make sure that electronic media use is appropriate in content and amount for the kid’s age. Screen time recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend no electronic screen use before the age of 2 years.
Once kids are old enough to use screen time, like older kids and teenagers, the hours that are “allowed” or “healthy” are not set in stone. The appropriate time to spend using electronic screen depends on multiple factors. In general, electronic screen time should be reserved for when the kid is done with other activities that are indicated for their age.
These important things are adequate sleep hours, at least 60 minutes of active play / physical activity, eating a healthy meal with the family (without using electronics), school work and studying
It is not always easy to remember all the things that have to get done to make sure you are not substituting vital activities with Facebook or YouTube. That is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a written media plan. That means, that for each kid at home, you will write the requirements for the day that have to get done before allowing for electronic screen time, of all kinds.
It is probably unrealistic to do all the things I mentioned before in that same sequence every day without running into some spare time that kids and teenagers will inevitably want to use to watch TV or browse the web. That is why writing down the media plan is so helpful. It will let your family visualize priorities and what needs to be done and sets common ground rules for healthy media use.
The American Academy of Pediatrics created a tool at their website, HealthyChildren.org that guides you through the creation of a media plan for every child and teenager in your home, based on their recommendations and your family’s values and priorities. It’s also important that as caregivers, you know that ultimately, you are responsible for the rules of your home and how they are enforced. Organizations like the AAP and us, pediatricians who follow and promote their guidelines, will give you the basic information you need to build upon.
Keep up with technology and talk to your kids
The fact that many parents are not very savvy with fast-changing technology can be a factor in the barrier in understanding with their teens. Many adults will refuse to partake in some of the newer technologies, and some will almost everything with a screen altogether. I recommend that you participate and learn more about the technologies that your kids are involved in. You will probably be amazed, and the kids will be impressed.
Communication is key. I urge parents to talk to their children and teenagers about what they do online. If you demonstrate that you know about the issues that they face online, they will be more likely to want to talk to you. Some of the more pressing issues are bullying, popularity and status, depression and social anxiety, risk-taking, and sexual development.
Teenage cellphone and internet supervision and rules
Just like you probably plan almost everything else, having a plan for online use is important. Get together as a family and talk about the subject. Discuss online topics and reinforce the rule to use it safely. Check privacy settings and online profiles for inappropriate posts. This is not for punishment, but to make sure that everyone is playing by the rules.
To create the rules, you will need to use common judgment and guide yourself using your own family’s values and beliefs. Here are some guidelines that you can use to create your own rules. These are based on what we have seen as relevant to the modern use of cell phones, social media, and other electronic device use in kids and teenagers:
- Keep electronic screens outside of children’s and teenager’s rooms. This includes putting the cellphone away in its charging station for the night, and not sleeping with the cellphone.
- Make sure kids know that is not appropriate to send or receive photos of people without clothes on, or sexy text messages. Make it clear that it doesn’t matter if it’s from a friend, another known person, or from a stranger.
- Be very clear about safety precautions such as keeping sensitive information private. You don’t want kids giving away online or over the phone their full name, address, where they go to school, or other information that would allow strangers to locate them.
- Have a media curfew, which means, that all electronic devices will be put away during certain protected times of the day. Suggested times are during mealtime and at bedtime.
- Be very clear when letting kids and teens know about which TV and movie content is not age-appropriate: violence, drugs, sexual acts, etc. You can tell if a TV show or movie is adequate for their age by looking at the TV-Rating and Movie-Rating designations.
- The family computer or other computer devices should be in a common room like the living room, where parents can supervise at any time what their kids and teenagers are browsing.
- Just like you would not tolerate your kid bullying or otherwise harassing a peer in “real life”, it should not be tolerated via online digital media.
Now that we have covered the pros and cons recommendations and even rules, I have to remind you, that still, kids are kids. They will need supervision until they are adults. Even the older kids will need supervision. Adults have to supervise the online activities of their kids live. That means, a real adult present in the room when kids are using the computer. Like I said before, the easiest way to achieve this is by having the computer in a common room, like the family room. This makes it easier for the caregivers to be on the look. Software used to monitor the Internet in absence of parents is not enough.
Is internet addiction real?
Unfortunately, we are getting there. There increasing concern for mental health problems related to the excess use of the internet, and internet related media. Not everyone who uses the Internet a lot has one of these problems.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), is a book that provides definitions for mental health disorders and helps mental health professional make diagnoses. In this book, they have added disorders related to the extremes of use of internet and related media, to a section called “Conditions that need further research”. So, even though there is not much known about these yet, here is a summary of what is known and proposed so far:
Internet Gaming Disorder
Internet gaming disorder is more common in males, and they are typically in the teenage stage of life, between 12 to 20 years of age. In the next list, I will go over the criteria currently used to classify someone as having Internet Gaming Disorder. The cut off the number at the moment is 5 symptoms or more means, to qualify. Note that a final diagnosis has to be made by a mental health professional since some criteria are hard to self-assess, or to judge without bias.
- Preoccupation: spending too much time thinking about video games
- Withdrawal: when they are not gaming, they feel withdrawal symptoms such as feeling moody or anxious (especially if they’re not playing because they’re unable to).
- Tolerance: over time, play time increases to keep the excitement high.
- Inability to reduce playing: deep down the player feels that they should play less, but they could not.
- Giving up other activities: having less interest, or no interest at all, in other activities. This includes other things that they used to like or regular daily stuff that no longer excites them.
- Continuing despite problems: this refers to recognizing to when they start experiencing problems in “real life” due to their excess gaming but are unable and/or unwilling to decrease the amount of gaming.
- Deception: this would refer to any behavior that is done to hide the truth from others about how much they play.
- Escape mood: often these players will feel like they are playing to escape from uncomfortable situations or feelings. They might only quietly think so, and some even announce it out loud.
- Risks: these players sometimes risk their relationship with other people like friends and family, and sometimes jeopardize life opportunities, due to games.
If any of these symptoms of Internet Gaming Disorder (or as many calls it, video game addiction) sound familiar to you, and you suspect that you or someone in your life may suffer from this, get help. This is a more serious and complex issue than it sounds. This is not just being spoiled or modern. This can bring serious harm if left unattended. A mental health professional can help. Your child’s pediatrician can help with your suspicions and can point you in the right direction for the next step in getting help.
Problematic Use of Internet (PIU)
This is another topic under heavy research that still needs a lot of polishing. Some researchers argue that a lot of people who might be classified as having PIU, actually are addicted to specific activities on the internet such as online shopping, online gambling, or online games, etc. Teenagers and young adults are at the highest risk of PIU. The proposed criteria, still under study and revision, are very similar to those described above for Internet Gaming Disorder:
- Preoccupation: persistent thoughts of previous use, and anticipation of the next time to use the internet.
- Withdrawal: experiencing psychological withdrawal symptoms such as restlessness, frustration, and irritability when not using the internet.
- Tolerance: needing increasing amounts of the internet to achieve satisfaction.
- Unsuccessful attempts to stop or reduce use: self-explanatory, means the person has recognized some problem and has tried to reduce internet use or stop it altogether, but has been unable to.
- Loss of interest: losing interest in other hobbies, in favor of being on the internet. That also refers to other activities that include socializing with friends and family, other forms of entertainment, etc.
- Continue to use despite problems: when a person’s excess internet use has already begun to cause problems “in real life” but they continue with the same pattern of use. Example of problems in real life might be getting into arguments with friends and family over the excess use of the internet, doing poorly in school due to excess use or internet, or being late/missing important appointments due to excess use of the internet.
- Use of internet as an escape: using the internet to escape or cope with negative moods such as guilt, sadness, anxiety or other negative experiences.
- Lying about use: lying to family members or others about the extent of their involvement with internet use.
Like I said before, this is also a hot topic under frequent study, and we are often learning new things about the origin of these new phenomena, and we might even find that they are manifestations of other mental health problems that we knew, but with a different face! So, if you are concern about yourself or a loved about after reading these criteria, seek help from your primary care provider. They can point you in the right direction.
In conclusion, the Internet is just like the “real world” – it has a little bit of everything. Parents and kids have to be on the same page about the Internet, just like they should be about offline matters. And kids need to be supervised online just like they need to offline.
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- Andrew K. Przybylski, Netta Weinstein, and Kou Murayama. Internet Gaming Disorder: Investigating the Clinical Relevance of a New Phenomenon. American Journal of Psychiatry 2017 174:3, 230-236
- Li W, O’Brien JE, Snyder SM, Howard MO. Diagnostic Criteria for Problematic Internet Use among U.S. University Students: A Mixed-Methods Evaluation. PLoS One. 2016;11(1):e0145981. Published 2016 Jan 11.
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