When I was growing up, which was before the era of cell phones, contacting a friend involved calling their home and saying (to the adult who answered the phone) something like, "Hi, Mrs. Doe. Is Johnny home?"
Not so today, in the world of cell phones, texting, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.
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Parents: Educate Yourselves
If you are a parent who doesn't use or understand the new technologies, you probably should, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). More than half of teens connect to a social media site at least daily. Three-quarters have cell phones that they can use for social networking as well as texting. In a guideline published in March 2011, the AAP makes the important (if obvious) point that today's children are growing up on the Internet. And, since children and adolescents now spend a great deal of time there, parents have good reasons to know what the place is like.
The Internet is both private (parents are often excluded) and immeasurably public. It's the public part that has pediatricians and parents worried. The Internet is a new place for children to become vulnerable. They can be bullied or humiliated by peers. They may release private information and regret it later. Predators can exploit them. There are opportunities to become involved in sexual situations or relationships that are emotionally hurtful or dangerous.
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The Value of Social Media
In spite of these dangers, the AAP recognizes that social media have enormous value for kids. Young people can use a variety of channels to socialize, learn, create and grow. They can find social support from peers with common interests. They can get involved in their communities and strengthen their communication skills. Moreover, children can explore topics that they might be too embarrassed to ask about in person — sex, health or any of the common and uncommon sources of childhood unhappiness.
The AAP recommendations line up with what parents have been doing for generations when it comes to setting limits and expectations. "Digital-age parenting" is no different.
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Avoid the "Participation Gap"
The AAP has other good advice for parents to narrow the "participation gap." Parents will be more effective if they know about their children's online communities and activities. It's no different than learning about the schools their children attend, the activities they take part in, or the parties they go to. The AAP urges parents to talk with their children rather than spy on them. Children are, after all, entitled to (and benefit from) a zone of privacy so they can develop a sense of autonomy and independence.
The guideline includes one recommendation that strikes me as impractical or unrealistic — the idea of "a family online-use plan" and "regular family meetings." There is no evidence that the privileges and limits of Internet use are substantially different from, for example, rules around bedtime, doing homework or watching TV. It may be easier for parents to use the style that already works for the family.
The authors appropriately advise against punishment. Instead, they suggest teaching or modeling healthy behavior and good citizenship. Again this makes good sense because it builds on values that parents are already trying to impart to their children.
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Digital Parenting is Mainstream Parenting
Social media tools are relatively new, but they are not the first advance in communications to challenge parents. Parents of the 1920s — when radio ushered in the "jazz age" — worried that jazz music and dances like the Charleston would lead to dangerously loose living. And the rapid adoption of television, telephone and high-speed air travel — the so-called "jet age" of the 1950s and 1960s — aroused similar anxieties in parents. Young adults, in turn, listened to Elvis, the Beatles or the Grateful Dead. They grew their hair longer and advocated free love.
In all that time, parenting has not had to change so much. The optimistic view, one I share, is that advances in communication have actually given parents some helpful tools, too.
The guideline authors suggest that pediatricians encourage parents to talk with their children about bullying, popularity, status, depression, social anxiety, risk-taking and sexual development. This is an excellent list, because these issues were important both before and after social networks, such as Facebook, existed.
Here are some practical suggestions:
- Have children (especially younger children) use the computer only in a common area.
- Keep an eye on how much time your kids spend on the computer and set limits you think make sense. The limits here may be similar to the ones you set regarding television time.
- Pay attention to what your children are doing online — are they chatting with friends when they should be doing homework? The idea is not to scold, but to help them balance work time with fun.
- Consider allowing children more computer independence as they age. The kinds of decisions you make here are similar to decisions about using the family car.
- Discuss online safety and responsibility. It's not always easy to do, but try to keep the lines of communication open about these subjects as your children become teenagers.
- Learn about the Internet. For example, if your children regularly use a social media service, open an account to see how it works.
For more tips, see
from the AAP or explore the AAP's Healthy Children
Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller has an active clinical practice and has been on staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for more than 25 years.