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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

The good and the bad of social networking

Both proponents and critics of teen social networking would have had no trouble finding something to bolster their case in remarks made last week at the 119th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

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

First of all, the positives: Young adults who spend more time on Facebook are better at showing “virtual empathy” to their online friends. Plus, online social networking can help introverted adolescents learn how to socialize once they step out from behind the safety of the screen. Social networking can also provide tools for a more compelling educational experience.

However, Rosen’s studies also provided strong evidence of the drawbacks of too much social networking:

  • Teens who use Facebook more often show more narcissistic tendencies, while young adults with a strong Facebook presence also show signs of other psychological disorders, antisocial behavior, mania and aggressive tendencies.

  • 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.

Of course, what these survey-based studies can’t show is cause and effect: Is online social networking responsible for higher levels of narcissism and depression, or is it just that teens with these tendencies are more attracted to forums like Facebook?

Perhaps more revealing was a study suggesting that Facebook can be distracting and have a negative impact on learning. In a study involving 300 middle school, high school and college teens, Rosen found that students who constantly checked Facebook while they studied achieved lower grades.

However, the fact that other studies have shown a similar effect from constant texting suggests that it might be technology itself which is the distraction, rather than laying the blame on one particular application such as Facebook.

Whatever the psychological or learning issues associated with technology, Rosen suggests that parents take an early role in developing appropriate guidelines for their kids’ technology use – and that shouldn’t include trying to spy on their Facebook activity.

“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,” said Rosen.

Instead, Rosen suggests that parents teach their kids to take tech breaks, so they can apply their full attention to their studies and then come back to social networking and texting later. Helping kids develop good technology habits is one of the biggest challenges facing parents in today’s digital world.

“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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