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Children And Social Media Websites - What Parents Should Know

November 10, 2012

For the new generation of children social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are among the most common activities and, in fact, a way of life. About 30 percent of kids aged between 8 and 12 years have managed to create accounts on such websites despite regulations according to which the users must be at least 13 years of age.

Any website that allows social interaction is considered a social media site, including video sites such as YouTube, social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, and video gaming sites such as Club Penguin, Second Life, and the Sims. These types of websites offer young generation an opportunity for entertainment as well as seem to be the newest way of communication with one another. In the past couple of years such sites have grown exponentially, in particular, the largest one, Facebook, which recently hit the 1,000,000,000-membership mark. The average number of Facebook daily registrations varies between 250,000 and 300,000 worldwide.

However, many children, being the most vulnerable users of social media websites, are blissfully unaware of all potential dangers and risks associated with such sites, including pedophiles, for example, who use Internet in order to lure their young victims. For this reason, it is critical that parents become aware of the nature of social networking websites, given that not all of them are healthy environments for the kids. It is crucial that parents are aware of and monitor children for the most common problems, such as cyber bullying, "Facebook depression," and exposure to inappropriate content.

Despite online dangers, another big concern for psychologists is a research according to which social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter are altering children's brains. The research, conducted by Baroness Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and the director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, came to the conclusion that social media is "infantilizing" the minds of young kids, and that participation in social networking sites makes children more self-centered and reduces their attention spans. In addition, children's behavior is being affected as well. At an age when a child is still developing, face-to-face social interaction with other children is being substituted with online interactions. Psychologists worry that an imbalance of social development could eliminate vital child development skills which are acquired during face-to-face socializing.

Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, discussed both positive and negative effects of Facebook in a plenary talk, entitled: "How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids." Potential negative effects included:

  • Teenagers who use Facebook on a regular basis show more narcissistic tendencies, whereas young adults who use the website frequently demonstrate signs of other psychological disorders, such as mania, aggressiveness and antisocial behaviors.

  • Using social media on a daily basis has a negative impact on the health of all kids, preteens and teens by making them more predisposed to anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders. Daily overuse of technology also makes children more prone to future problems with health.

  • Social networking websites can be distracting and can negatively affect children's learning process. It was found that middle school, high school and college students who checked their Facebook accounts at least once during a 15-minute study period had lower grades when compared to other students.

Some of the positive features of the social media sites are that they make it easier for some individuals to keep up with a large circle of friends and acquaintances as well as meet new people. When it comes to young generation, positive influences linked to social networking include:

  • Children and adolescents who regularly use Facebook are better at demonstrating "virtual empathy" to their online acquaintances and friends.

  • Participating in online social media sites can help introverted teens and adolescents learn how to socialize behind the safety of various screens, ranging from smartphones to laptops.

  • Social networking can provide useful tools for teaching in compelling ways that engage young generation.

For parents, experts and psychologists offer guidance, such as to start instructing a child not to give away any personal information, including address and phone number, to anybody online. Any user has an option to choose having their information set to "private" which can only be seen by "friends" that have been accepted by them. Such an option helps limit a child's private information being seen by random and unknown individuals. Parents also must caution their kids that pictures and comments are available for anyone to view them. They also have to be informed about the difference between a friend and a random acquaintance. Children must understand that social media is more about making acquaintances that are much more superficial than face-to-face interactions.

One of the best recommendations for concerned parents is to limit the amount of time that a child spends online on a daily basis. Checking websites such as Facebook can be very addictive which can result in more distraction from school work. Some parents might want to consider instilling a rule that no social networking can be done until all homework or other responsibilities are being completed. Face-to-face social interactions should be encouraged as much as possible; also, signing children up for clubs and groups that are interesting for them or engaging them in different sporting activities might be a good way to decrease the time spent online. Otherwise, the goal is to create a balance of having actual interactions that would help children use those important social and emotional skills that help them relate. If parents could establish a 80/20 social interaction ratio, with 20 percent of the time a child spends online, and the remaining 80 percent of face-to-face personal socializing, it will counteract any effect social networking sites may create.

Tags: Parenting and Families