April 3, 2010

When Can a Child Use Facebook?

By Bryan Vartabedian, MD FAAP
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Texas Children's Hospital/Baylor College of Medicine

This is a question parents are beginning to ask. If they don’t ask their pediatrician, it’s a question they will inevitably ask themselves and their friends. As the prevalence of social media increases, the issue of social media use by teens has become a legitimate concern and one that may not be on the radar of most practicing pediatricians.

Social networking is evolving at an extremely rapid pace. What’s popular today may not be in a year or two. As parents and pediatricians, we need to be less concerned with the particular method of communication and instead focus on instilling basic core values of privacy and personal boundaries in our children and patients. These same values will apply whether a child is using MySpace, Facebook or Twitter, whether they are texting or uploading photos of themselves.

Here are a few things to consider in our dialog with parents surrounding teen social media use:

A parent’s capacity to protect is limited
There are two basic truths that parents and pediatricians need to accept in this new digital age:
• Online social activity is inevitable.
• A parent’s ability to control what teens say and do is limited.

It’s important to recognize that as children get older, our ability to protect them, online or off, is greatly reduced. Digital socialization is not a fad or a gimmick. It represents a generational shift in how we engage one another. To suggest that our patients will grow and develop socially exactly as we did is fantasy. Digital culture is changing that.

Instead of trying to create an environment where online activity can be avoided, we need to help children develop a construct, or framework, for appropriate engagement in this new digital world.

Parents set an example
Perhaps the greatest framework for a child is the behavior of his or her parent. What parents do and how seriously they take their online engagement is noted and potentially adopted by tweens and teens. Modeling may be an important first-step in helping children identify what’s healthy and what isn’t.

Teens are digital and invincible
The trademark of teens is their ability to detach themselves from situations with the belief that they can’t get hurt. This narcissistic grandiosity affects the way teens evaluate risk and makes them more likely to engage in risky behavior. Unfortunately, just as what happens at a party or behind the wheel of a car can cause lasting damage, so too can online behavior.

Online engagement creates a trail that we call one’s digital footprint. This trail can follow teens into the college admission process and even into the workforce influencing how potential employers view them in their quest for jobs.

Parental monitoring of a child’s public ‘brand’ is evolving as a new responsibility in 2010. Parents can begin by impressing upon their children the emphasis that a digital footprint can have on their future. Although teens do view themselves as invincible, starting around 16 years of age they are also very concerned with the concept of a reputation and personal image. Once teens become aware of how online behavior can affect that image for years to come, they may be more apt to protect their online reputation.

The responsibility of pediatricians
If as pediatricians we don’t advise parents, they will turn to their own devices and their own networks for advice. Personal networks are part of parenting, but we should not surrender our role as child health advocates in the sphere of social engagement.

Helping parents navigate the territory of online socialization should fall under the responsibility of the pediatrician. Just as parents have to rethink the way they raise children, pediatricians collectively need to rethink anticipatory guidance. Our worldview of how we advise parents needs to evolve.