Smartphones provide virtually unlimited access to social networking sites and online content, and adolescents are becoming increasingly prevalent users of the digital realm. While social media can be a fun way for friends and family members to stay connected, parents should be aware of the unique risks the internet poses to pediatric users. Children are particularly susceptible to the dangers of cyberbullying and online sexual predation, both of which can be detrimental to a child’s emotional, psychological, and physical health.
Cyberbullying is defined as harassing or bullying an individual through electronic media. Harassment can take the form of writing hurtful messages, spreading embarrassing pictures, posting malicious rumors, or sending threats. While often perceived as a behavior seen exclusively on social networking sites, cyberbullying can also occur via emails, text messages, and online games.
Like in-person bullying, being targeted by cyberbullying can negatively impact many aspects of a child’s life. These kids are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances, as well as experience difficulty concentrating in the classroom. In some cases, the cyberbullying reaches such intolerable levels that children change schools or even drop out. While many school districts have implemented policy changes aimed to reduce cyberbullying, parents play a critical role in monitoring their children’s internet usage – both for being bullied and doing the bullying.
The internet also increases adolescent exposure to graphic sexual content. This includes random pop-up ads from pornographic sites to direct messages from strangers in chatrooms. Sexual predators have been known to target children online and manipulate them into sharing personal information, sending sensual photographs, and secretly meeting up for rendezvous.
While parents may wish to believe that their children are immune from such online sexual content, the data suggests that these situations occur not uncommonly. A recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 1 in 5 children may be exposed to unsolicited sexually-explicit content, and nearly 1 in 9 children reported unwelcome online sexual advances. Given the relative frequency of these encounters, it is imperative that parents have open discussions with their children and encourage them to speak up if they ever receive any inappropriate messages from anyone.
The American Academy of Pediatrics makes the following recommendations to parents to promote safe internet use among adolescents:
- Keep the computer in a central location in the home. This allows you to monitor which websites your child is visiting, as well as how much time your child is spending online.
- Be familiar your child’s online friends. While online friendships can be a healthy part of adolescent development, be aware of what platforms your child is visiting and who your child is talking to.
- Act as a digital media role model. By demonstrating good manners online and limiting your own screen time, your child is likely to learn similar healthy internet habits.
- Emphasize the importance of privacy. Teach your child to never give out personal information to strangers and to limit the amount of information shared on social media profiles. Remind your child that although they can change settings to “private”, everything shared online is part of their permanent digital footprint.
- Warn your child about sexual predators and cyberbullying. As mentioned above, it is important that your child is aware of these possible dangers of the internet and that they feel comfortable telling you should they ever fall victim to such inappropriate online behaviors.
- Encourage your child to ask you questions. By opening the floor for discussion about internet usage from the start, your child may be more likely to come to you when concerns arise.
For more information, visit healthychildren.org.
Laura Fitzgerald UTMB Year 4 Medical Student
Written as a part of her rotation on the Department of Pediatrics ABC Child Safety and Prevention Team.
Madigan S, Villani V, Azzopardi C, et al. The Prevalence of Unwanted Online Sexual Exposure and Solicitation
Among Youth: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2018;63(2):133-141. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.03.012.