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The Dark Side Of Social Media For Kids And Teens

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As the interest for online safety continues to grow, I asked Lilla Dale McManis, MEd., PhD. to contribute her thoughts on the impact of social media on our children.

This article draws from the guide she wrote for the Online Safety Group to explore the role of social media in posing a threat to kids and how parents can help them stay safe.

As a parent, when you hear 'social media' do you automatically think Facebook?

This is understandable but to truly comprehend the social media experience of our kids means knowing they have dozens of choices. Facebook is certainly one but there is Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Kik, WhatsApp and sites you might not on the surface consider social media but are indeed so like Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Vine, and gaming sites.

Kids Using Social Media

Let's think about the definition of social media. Social media is any platform that allows a connection to be made between people. For kids, especially teens, this goes beyond a cursory connection to full-on active relationships. For instance, 72 per cent of all teens spend time with friends via social media and 23 per cent do so daily. Further, kids make a lot of new friends online. Almost 60 per cent of teens have done so with the most common way being through social media and online gaming (Teens, Technology and Friendships).

The vast majority of teens say social media helps them be more connected to the feelings of their friends and their lives. It's also a way they get support when facing difficult times. On the other hand, "stirring up drama" is the way 70 per cent of teens report their peers behave on social media. And they should know as 75 per cent use social media with 70 per cent of these kids using more than one site.

Challenges of Social Media

Let's take a look at some of the challenges our kids are facing...

Facebook Depression

In the stats above, we alluded to pressure kids feel around their image on social media. A new condition has been identified for preteens and teens, coined Facebook Depression. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports this is depression triggered when kids devote quite a lot of effort to constructing and establishing a social media presence, then spend a great deal of time on the site(s), and feel unaccepted by their peers. The characteristics of the depression are similar to traditional depression and include symptoms such as anxiety, withdrawal, and engaging in risky self-destructive behaviors.

The risk of this type of depression goes up with "surveillance use." This is when one is constantly checking on what friends are up to and making comparisons with one's own life. Since 80 per cent of teens check their devices hourly and 22 per cent go onto their favorite social media sites more than 10 times daily, the chances of social media depression rising unfortunately look very likely (Clinical report--The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families).

Taking action is very doable...

But this doesn't mean negative outcomes have to be a given. For one thing kids aren't completely passive. They unfriend, unfollow, and block. This is especially the case for girls, who do so slightly more than boys. Almost 60 per cent of teens have taken these actions.

Secondly, those kids more likely to be susceptible to social media depression are the ones also more likely to be susceptible to depression in general. Since they may actually open up more online about their feelings, there can be a better chance for parents to detect problems. Research shows 70 per cent of parents have checked their kid's social media profile, including logging into their profile to see posts. The take away for parents is to closely monitor and get your child help if you see signs of concern.

Protecting passwords is crucial. While we would like to hope our kids' friendships are healthy and long-lasting, the truth is that this is not always the case. Former friends or romantic partners having access to a teen's password can be a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately the more social media sites used, the higher the likelihood this will happen.

For teens using two or more social media sites, almost a quarter have shared their password and for those who use five or more, this increases to over a third. Why? Teens see it as a sign of trust. This means that as a parent you have to be very insistent that this is simply not allowed. You can give them an out by letting them tell friends something like, "My parents would freak out and take my phone away so I can't do it!"

Closing Thoughts

Social media represents not just a way to establish and maintain relationships but is a "mirror" of sorts of the teen themself about who they are and how they are seen by others. These are central areas of importance to youth and therefore make them vulnerable to risk. Just as parents are involved in their children's peer relationships that happen in person, it is and may be even more necessary for parents to be actively involved around kids' social media use where so much can be hidden.

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