March 15, 2013
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
With a billion Facebook users, it's hard to dispute that social media is here to stay and that it is going to be an integral part of our children's lives. In fact, social media websites can improve children's communication, social connection and even technical skills.
Maybe you don't use social media as much as your children do. Many parents don't. So teaching them about the risks may be a challenge.
The more experience you have with social media, the more credibility you'll have when you talk to your children. And if you are a social media user, share your experiences as a way to talk to your children about their online habits.
But whatever your comfort level, you need to teach your children three very important lessons about social media:
- Not everything you read is true. Information on websites has a way sounding very authoritative. Talk to your children about how to assess whether a source is believable. Does the author have experience or training in what they are talking about? Could they have a bias? Talk with your children about what they read. Help them develop a critical eye and some perspective.
- Nothing you post online (or e-mail or text) is private. A text may seem like it is just between you and the person you send it to, but that person could forward it or take a screen shot of the conversation and post it online. A post on a Facebook page can easily end up on someone else's Facebook page. A blog you write can be copied and pasted; a picture can end up absolutely anywhere.
Talk to your children about using "good judgment" when it comes to posting anything online. And what the consequences can be of using social media to gossip, bully, spread rumors or hurt a person's reputation.
More and more, we are hearing stories about how employers, admissions officers and others are checking people's online activities as they consider them for jobs, schools and other opportunities. And there are more stories about bright, capable, promising people losing those opportunities because they didn't consider how their words and actions online might appear to others. These days, your online reputation matters. It's especially true because ...
- What you post online can stay there forever. You can take down a post, but it always exists somewhere. And if someone takes a screen shot, or copies and pastes it, it doesn't matter if you take it down they have a copy. There are no do-overs in social media.
Just as a reminder:
- Be where your kids are online: Facebook, Twitter, etc. Consider having you and your child "friend" each other, at least when they are younger. (As they grow older, this may feel and be intrusive, but hopefully by then they have learned what they need to know.) This lets them know there is an adult with access to their profile.
- Set time limits for Internet and cell phone use.
- Learn the warning signs of too much online time: skipping activities, meals and homework; weight loss or gain; falling grades. They could mean your child has a problem with Internet or social media addiction.
Contact your pediatrician for advice if any of these symptoms are occurring.
There is a lot that is wonderful about social media. It has tremendous potential to teach us and to connect us. It is already transforming how we communicate, learn and think. And it will be a huge part of our children's future. Working together, we can make that future a good one.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.