Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: Safe use of social media: Guidance for parents

As many who were children before the era of cell phones will remember, contacting a friend by phone often involved mastering at least the following script: "Hi, Mrs. Doe. Is Johnny home?" Not so today, in the world of cell phones, texting, e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

If you are a parent and don't use or understand the new technologies, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has just issued a guideline saying that you probably should. 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 second half of this pair 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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