Pediatrician Mary Larew, MD, and obstetrician-gynecologist Ginny Ryan, MD, discuss what parents and teens should know about the risks of social media and the Internet.
Mary LarewMary Larew, MD  

From smart phones to Facebook, teens face a dizzying array of choices an d opportunities through digital communication. On the one hand, this is good. Teens can immediately connect with their friends, family, and teachers to enhance their social, technical, and academic skills.

On the other hand, new risks abound. Worrisome terms like teen “sexting” (requesting or sending sexually explicit photographs to others electronically) are part of the lexicon. In a recent study conducted in a large metro area, over a quarter of the high school students surveyed had texted or e-mailed nude pictures of themselves. More than half had requested explicit pictures. In contrast to those who had not, the young women who sexted were more likely to:

  • Have sex
  • Have sex with multiple partners, and
  • Use alcohol or drugs before having sex.

Interestingly, these risky behaviors were not increased in young men who sexted. So what does this mean? For starters, remember that once something is posted online, it cannot be taken back. It can be captured and forwarded an infinite number of times.

Ginny RyanGinny Ryan, MD  

Besides being intensely embarrassing, teens can be left vulnerable to advertisers, predators, and even cyber-bullies. Security software might help in some cases but many household computer users inadvertently disclose identifying information, including location.

Even users with strict privacy settings can unknowingly disclose personal information when sending messages to friends on Facebook. Your “friend” may not have privacy settings and the message can get shared publically. Face recognition software can “tag” a person in a photo even if they don’t want to be identified. Photographs and emails can be altered and used maliciously.

Because of these risks, here are a few suggestions:

  • Begin supervision at a very early age. Ideally, children under age two should not watch TV, ever.
  • Be mindful of what you watch because children ARE affected, even if they don’t appear to be paying attention.
  • Keep the TV, computer, and other electronics out of the bedroom and in a public area of the home. This will enable you to watch shows with your child and teach media literacy by commenting on what is being watched.
  • Personally practice Internet safety, especially regarding privacy, and teach it to your children. Great care should be taken when sharing personally identifying information on-line, including social security numbers and credit card numbers.
  • Limit what sites your child can visit. Talk about the dangers of inappropriate or provocative information or photographs. Parental guidance can provide a strong foundation of knowledge and safety.
  • Continue internet safety discussions as your child enters the teen years and becomes increasingly independent.

Although it might sound like parents are making all the decisions and dictating the rules, it is even more important to listen to what children are learning and experiencing. Guidelines may need to be modified as appropriate for the maturity of the child. Your child must know that he or she can come to you even if (or especially if) they make a mistake.

All of us make mistakes in judgment. To live healthy lives in today’s digital world, parents need to be consistent in providing guidance and keeping communication open with their children.