Seeing Social Media More as Portal Than as Pitfall
By PERRI KLASS, M.D.
January 9, 2012 (New York Times)
More than a hundred years ago, when the telephone was introduced, there was some hand-wringing over the social dangers that this new technology posed: increased sexual aggression and damaged human relationships. “It was going to bring down our society,” said Dr. Megan Moreno, a specialist in adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Men would be calling women and making lascivious comments, and women would be so vulnerable, and we’d never have civilized conversations again.”
In other words, the telephone provoked many of the same worries that more recently have been expressed about online social media. “When a new technology comes out that is something so important, there is this initial alarmist reaction,” Dr. Moreno said.
Indeed, much of the early research — and many of the early pronouncements — on social media seemed calculated to make parents terrified of an emerging technology that many of them did not understand as well as their children did.
Whether about sexting or online bullying or the specter of Internet addiction, “much social media research has been on what people call the danger paradigm,” said Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician and the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston.
Though there are certainly real dangers, and though some adolescents appear to be particularly vulnerable, scientists are now turning to a more nuanced understanding of this new world. Many have started to approach social media as an integral, if risky, part of adolescence, perhaps not unlike driving.
Researchers are also looking to Facebook, Twitter and the rest for opportunities to identify problems, to hear cries for help and to provide information and support. Dr. Rich, who sees many teenagers who struggle with Internet-related issues, feels strongly that it is important to avoid blanket judgments about the dangers of going online.
“We should not view social media as either positive or negative, but as essentially neutral,” he said. “It’s what we do with the tools that decides how they affect us and those around us.”
Dr. Moreno’s early research looked at adolescents who displayed evidence of risky behaviors on public MySpace profiles, posting photos or statements that referred to sexual activity or substance abuse. E-mails were sent to those adolescents suggesting that they modify their profiles or make them private.
Girls were more likely to respond than boys, Dr. Moreno found, and sexual material was more likely than alcohol-related material to be removed.
Her current research, by contrast, approaches social media as a window, an opportunity to understand and improve both physical and mental health. In a study of the ways college students describe sadness in status updates on their Facebook profiles, she showed that some such expressions were associated with depression in students who completed clinical screening tests.
Since freshman year is a high-risk time for depression, many college resident advisers already try to use Facebook to monitor students, Dr. Moreno said. Perhaps it will be possible to help R.A.’s recognize red flags in the online profiles of their charges.
Still, she acknowledged that this new strategy raised privacy concerns, asking, “How do you think about extending this to other at-risk groups in a way that still doesn’t feel like an invasion of privacy?” For example, can we help people in support groups take care of one another better through social media?
Going back and forth, as I do these days, between the worlds of academic pediatrics and academic journalism, I am struck by the focus in both settings on the potential — and the risks — of social media and on the importance of understanding how communication is changing.
Our children are using social media to accomplish the eternal goals of adolescent development, which include socializing with peers, investigating the world, trying on identities and establishing independence.
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media issued a clinical report, “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Families.” It began by emphasizing the benefits of social media for children and adolescents, including enhanced communication skills and opportunities for social connections.
“A large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cellphones,” the report noted.
Our job as parents is to help them manage all this wisely, to understand — and avoid — some of the special dangers and consequences of making mistakes in these media. (We can expect the same kind of gratitude that we get for all of our guidance: mixed, of course, with an extra helping of contempt if our technical skills are not up to theirs.)
“Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all harm model, one of the questions parents need to ask is, ‘How is this going to interact with my child’s personality?’ ” said Clay Shirky, who teaches about social media at New York University. “Digital media is an amplifier. It tends to make extroverts more extroverted and introverts more introverted.”
And both parents and researchers need to be sure they understand the subtleties of the ways teenagers interpret social media.
At a 2011 symposium on the Internet and society, two researchers presented information on how teenagers understand negative talk on the Internet. What adults interpret as bullying is often read by teenagers as “drama,” a related but distinct phenomenon.
By understanding how teenagers think about harsh rhetoric, the researchers suggested, we may find ways to help them defend themselves against the real dangers of online aggression.
The problems of cyberbullying and Internet overuse are serious, and the risks of making mistakes online are very real. But even those who treat adolescents with these problems are now committed to the idea that there are other important perspectives for researchers — or parents, or teachers — looking at the brave new universe in which adolescence is taking place.
Social media, said Dr. Rich, “are the new landscape, the new environment in which kids are sorting through the process of becoming autonomous adults — the same things that have been going on since the earth cooled.”