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Social Media and Kids; The Good and Bad

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

It’s truly amazing how many children, and adults, are hooked on social media. While the debate may continue over whether it’s a passing fad or a permanent fixture in our lives, recent research suggests that for kids – there’s good and not so good results from spending too much time online “socializing.”

An interesting article in Time Magazine recently looked at several studies on the effects of social media and kids, as well as a report delivered at the 119th annual convention of the American Psychological Association. The studies reveal that social media networking is having a strong impact on our children’s lives, and not always in a positive way.

“While nobody can deny that Facebook has altered the landscape of social interaction, particularly among young people, we are just now starting to see solid psychological research demonstrating both the positives and the negatives,” said Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Recent studies have found that students in middle school, high school and college who checked Facebook at least once during a 15 minute study period got lower grades. Also teens that frequently used the site showed more narcissistic tendencies. Daily overuse of media and technology has a negative effect on the health of all children, preteens and teenagers by making them more prone to anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders, as well as by making them more susceptible to future health problems.

The research also showed that not all social media use has a negative influence on children. There are some positive benefits to social networking.

- Young adults who spend more time on Facebook are better at showing “virtual empathy” to their online friends.

- Online social networking can help introverted adolescents learn how to socialize behind the safety of various screens, ranging from a two-inch smart-phone to a 17-inch laptop.

- Social networking can provide tools for teaching in compelling ways that engage young students.

While observing kids’ study behavior, researchers watched as students spent 15 minutes studying something important to them. “What we found was mind-boggling,” says Rosen. About every three minutes they are off-task. You’d think under these constraints, knowing that someone is observing you, that someone would be more on task.”

Some of their findings are:

- The more time elapsed, the more windows opened on the student’s computer. The amount of windows peaked at 8-10 minutes, and on-task behavior declined at the same point

- When students stayed on task, they performed better

- When they toggled between windows and other tasks, they performed worse

“The more media they consumed per day, the worse students they were,” says Rosen. “If they checked Facebook just once during 15 minutes, they were worse students.”

Psychologists and teachers can combat the decline in productivity by teaching students about the concept of metacognition — knowing how your brain works and how to study. For studying, that means turning off Facebook and not task-switching.

One strategy that Rosen recommends to schools is “tech breaks,” in which teachers help students increase their attention span. Teachers start by picking a 15-minute block of time in which students must put away their phones and focus. When the time expires, students are allowed a one-minute tech break to use apps, sends texts or check Facebook. “One minute turns out to be a pretty darn long time,” says Rosen. “We now know neurologically that if we don’t have a tech break, kids are already starting to think about anything other than what the teacher talking about. If they know they get a tech break, they’re able to stop those thoughts. It works amazingly.”

For parents, Rosen offered guidance. “If you feel that you have to use some sort of computer program to surreptitiously monitor your child’s social networking, you are wasting your time. Your child will find a workaround in a matter of minutes,” he said. “You have to start talking about appropriate technology use early and often and build trust, so that when there is a problem, whether it is being bullied or seeing a disturbing image, your child will talk to you about it.”

He encouraged parents to assess their child’s activities on social networking sites, and discuss removing inappropriate content or connections to people who appear problematic. Parents also need to pay attention to the online trends and the latest technologies, websites and applications children are using, he said. ”Communication is the crux of parenting. You need to talk to your kids, or rather, listen to them,” Rosen said. “The ratio of parent listen to parent talk should be at least five-to-one. Talk one minute and listen for five.”

Denying your child any social media contact isn’t really practical, there’s simply too many ways to network.  But like everything else in life, the key is moderation and balance.

“When a kid’s on tech, we tend to think we don’t want to bother them because they’re quiet,” says Rosen. “But that’s the time you need to pay attention. We have to start very young talking to kids about tech breaks and exercise and time spent off media. There is a need for moderation and balance.”

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