Are Social Networks (Facebook) Creating New Social & Emotional Landmines for Children?

Question: There's so much talk these days about all of these social networks especially like Facebook. The other day my nine-year-old daughter wanted to sign up for one of these social networks so she can "share" things over them with her other friends. What are your thoughts about these social networks for children?

Dr. Andie: Nowadays many of these social networks in particular, the largest one, Facebook, seem to be the newest way today's youth are communicating with one another. It used to be one called MySpace that was the earliest and largest social network but now Facebook is the world's largest social network. I believe Facebook just hit the 800,000,000 membership mark. What's amazing is that Facebook averages 250,000-300,000 new registrations a day worldwide! Now this isn't just children signing up as it now includes people of all ages, but it gives you a sense of how popular these networks have become.

Parent: I guess if they are so popular there must be some benefits everyone is getting from them.

Dr. Andie: Well, some of the pros of these social networks are that it does make it easier to keep up with a large circle of acquaintances and meet new people. There is no doubt that they provide a venue for online socializing as well as a great way to connect with other people interested in specific topics. In our last presidential campaign they were both utilized as a way for students to become aware of the candidates as well as who you support and who you don't. Nowadays, Facebook is a major venue used in marketing for both small and large companies. However, even though social networks seem to be the perfect communication tool, there are also negative aspects to them.

Parent: How could these negative aspects affect my daughter if she joins?

Dr. Andie: Before you allow her to join a social network, I'd like you to consider some aspects that really do impact kids today, both from a social and emotional way. First, let's examine the way the social networks use the word "friend". Our traditional notion of friendship involves trust, support and similar values. On social networks sites, a "friend" is someone whose link you have clicked. The meaning of friend as we know it becomes almost devalued. What does this translate to your son or daughter when a high number of friends are part of their network? Does it mean that they are more popular? This leads to another issue, especially for teens, who can become very competitive. Some network sites feature places where anyone of your friend network can comment about you which could lead to emotional landmines for social humiliation and bullying. From an academic perspective, it has been reported that at least 2/3 of all users log onto Facebook once a day for at least 20 minutes. It could be a major distraction from homework or studying. For many kids, it's certainly more intriguing to look at some pictures from a party last weekend than it is to prepare for an upcoming exam!

Parent: Now having a better understanding of both the pros and cons of social network sites and how popular it is among older kids today, what suggestions do you have as guidelines for parents when their children request to sign up for them?

Dr. Andie: Here are my suggestions:

  1. First, the best thing a parent can do is to be aware of these pros and cons about social networking sites. I was only talking about the social & emotional aspects of them. Safety and protecting children from social network predators is a whole another story. Briefly, instruct your child not to give any pertinent information of residence or phone on these sites. There is a way for your child to choose having their information only seen by "friends" that have been accepted by them. That helps limit their private information being seen by unknown people. Inform your child that pictures and comments are available for anyone to see them. That means schools and possible employers can access them.
  2. Explain to them the difference between friend and acquaintance. Let them understand that networks are more about making acquaintances that are much more superficial social interactions.
  3. Talk about empathy and what it would feel like if someone put a mean comment on someone's space. Empathy is the ability to understand someone's feelings or perspective. Help your child look at this social network approach from a perspective that friends don't humiliate or make fun of others. Humiliating others using social networks is a form of bullying, called cyberbullying, and is just as harmful as physical contact in bullying .The comments that they make can be read by everyone and inappropriate comments are not acceptable. In the same vein, discuss that no one gets a badge for the most friends on these sites. Let them be discerning about who they both friend request and the friends that request them. If they don't know them or heard of them, they are not to accept them to be part of their friend network.
  4. Limit the amount of time that your child uses these sites per day. Checking them can be addictive which can lead to more distraction away from schoolwork. You may want to instill a family restriction that no social networking can be done until all homework or other chores are completed.
  5. Encourage face -to-face social interactions as much as possible. Involve them in clubs, sporting activities, or groups that they are interested in. Remember we want to create a balance of having real interactions that help your child use those important social and emotional skills that help them relate. If you establish a 80/20 social interaction ratio, with 20% of the time a child spends on social network sites, the other 80% of true personal interactions, it will counteract any effect these sites may create.
Parent: Well, looks like I have to really have to weigh the pros and cons about whether I want my child to join one of these social networks. Thanks for giving me some insights and facts about social networking. It certainly is a whole another social world out there that my parents never had to deal with!

Dr. Andie: Yep, the bottom line is that technology is here to stay and in fact will only get faster and more complex. By parents giving their children the best gift... the power to relate, they may not stop the technology train but they will give them back what we as human beings were born to do... relate to one another in loving, caring, compassionate ways building real connections. Thank you for sharing your question with me!


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