Teens’ increasing online exposure can be risky business

teen-girls-cyberbullyingA recent Akron Beacon Journal article discussed the ramifications when Facebook lifted its restrictions on public posts by teenagers this fall, giving them access to the broader, more public audience.

Under its former policy, teens could communicate only within their extended network — meaning to “friends” or “friend of friends” — protecting young users’ privacy.

Though the default setting for teen Facebook accounts makes information only shareable with friends, they now have the option to manually change it.

Parents, teachers and physicians alike are concerned. Even if today’s children and teens are more Internet-savvy than their parents, they still need to be taught to avoid oversharing and the risks associated with it.

But how can parents serve as role models and teach their kids about these risks when their generation lacks the experience of what they did as teens?

Dr. James Fitzgibbon

Dr. James Fitzgibbon

“We have a certain disconnect.” said Dr. James Fitzgibbon, Akron Children’s director of adolescent medicine. “But I don’t think the role of support changes. Some of the same principles and approaches from pre-Internet time may work.”

While the Internet provides adolescents with numerous benefits, including increased social support, academic enrichment and worldwide, cross-cultural exposure, it comes with many threats for teens.

Facebook allows any user to search through troves of information, including status updates, photo captions and comments, and Twitter and other social media sites make posts searchable in Google.

Risks for privacy violations, cyber bullying and inappropriate solicitation can affect a child’s psychosocial development, said Dr. Fitzgibbon.

He points to a recent study that revealed cyber bullying and Internet harassment may affect up to one-third of our youth. In fact, he’s seen several patients in his office reeling from the affects of this online harassment.

But Dr. Fitzgibbon begs the question, whose job is it to teach these kids about safety online? Should it be the schools, physicians, parents?

He likens it to teens getting their driver’s license. In Ohio, they must accumulate 50 hours of driving with a parent, or a licensed adult, before they can apply for a driver’s license. Perhaps their Internet action should work similarly, where children must first spend time with their parents online.

“The bottom line is parents have to be involved early on,” he said. “Kids learn and mimic what their parents do.”

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