Doctors Should Ask Kids: Are You On Facebook?

March 28, 2011

Scott Hensley

Who's he friending now?

If the pediatrician wants to know if your kids are on Facebook, it's not because she wants to friend them.

The question about Facebook, and other queries about a child's life online, should be part of the medical history doctors take of kids in the age of social media, according to recommendations just out from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Parents should find out, too.

You don't really need peer-reviewed stats to know that tweens and teens spend a ton of time checking up on their friends (and rivals) on smartphones and computers. But sometimes the chatter can stray into dark territory, including cyberbullying, sexting, or even "Facebook depression."

Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics social media guidelines, told the Associated Press, that Facebook presents a special challenge for kids struggling with their own self-esteem.

As the AP summed it up:

With in-your-face friends' tallies, status updates and photos of happy-looking people having great times, Facebook pages can make some kids feel even worse if they think they don't measure up.

The pediatricians also point to work that suggests Internet addiction may be linked to depression.

Parents shouldn't wait for the doctor to check up on their kids behavior, though. Indeed, the advice to pediatricians says they should help parents get with the program and find out what their kids are doing.

The pediatricians have long recommended that parents ask their kids each day, "Have you used the computer and the Internet today?"

The latest advice also suggests that pediatricians tell parents to educate themselves about how social media work to narrow the "participation gap" that separates them from their tech-savvy kids.

Parents, the doctors say, should also hold family meetings to talk about rules of the online road and to check privacy settings and things like that. "The emphasis should be on citizenship and health behavior and not punitive action, unless truly warranted," the pediatricians advise. Don't rely on monitoring software alone.

Bringing up some of these subjects may not be easy for parents. The pediatricians have some ideas for that, too. Check out tips for talking with kids about social media and sexting from the academy.

And for more on how to help kids navigate the challenging online world, check out this post from KQED's MindShift blog Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.