The following appeared in the House Calls column of the Hamilton Spectator on May 19, 2011.
Q: My 14-year-old daughter always seems to be "connected" in some way, whether through a computer or her cellphone and I worry about trouble she could be getting into, maybe without her even knowing what she's doing. Am I overreacting?
A: I have been a practicing pediatrician for the past 10 years. Much of my time is spent working with teenagers and their families. Over the past few years, in particular, I have noticed a trend. Teenagers seem to have developed an extra appendage. Whether in a hospital bed, in the clinic, or out on the town, I have noticed more and more young people attached to their cellphones.
In a recent Canadian study, it was reported that 99 per cent of students had a computer at home, 65 per cent used online methods to communicate with their friends in a normal day, and 55 per cent used their cellphones for this.
Concerning stats reported from this study are that 32 per cent of teens share their online passwords, and 25 per cent were not aware of the fact that once something is uploaded onto the net, it cannot be permanently deleted.
Cyberbullying, sexting and texting while driving are some emerging concerns.
The phenomenon of cyberbullying is recent but prevalent. It includes threats, derogatory comments or offensive behaviour posted online or sent to the victim.
Sexting is another worrisome trend. It involves sending or receiving explicit messages, sometimes including nude photos. Many teens are embarrassed and feel regret once they realize what they have done during a momentary lapse in judgment. And once the image starts circulating, there is no telling where it will end up.
Texting while driving is problematic as it puts people at increased risk of motor vehicle accidents. Driving while distracted is obviously not a good idea, and texting while driving seems to be in a league of its own — one study suggests that its impact on reaction time is worse than alcohol!
Normal teen development can include experimentation, risk-taking behaviours, and increased peer influence. Coupled with a lack of knowledge about the internet and its potential pitfalls, this combination can be dangerous.
When it comes to the dangers of the internet/social media, the best weapons that parents can arm themselves with are knowledge and open communication. Get to know a little bit about some of the major social networking sites and find out what all the buzz is about. Find out what it means if someone posts something on your "wall" on Facebook or what it means to "tweet."
We should be teaching our young people about safe Internet use, for example, not sharing their passwords with friends, and not sending or posting pictures that they wouldn't want everyone on the Internet to see.
With increasing use of wireless devices, the old recommendation of putting the family computer in a high-traffic location in the house may not be sufficient.
Learn about and obtain software to help monitor your children's Internet use. This should not be done in secret. On the contrary, it should be an opportunity for a conversation. Let your teen know that you will be monitoring her use because of your concerns regarding safety. Also, set some ground rules about acceptable behaviour.
It is important to keep in mind that the Internet also has a lot of benefits — almost limitless information available at your fingertips.
I am convinced that, if used properly, the revolutionary new technologies that are becoming available to all of us will have far more benefit than burden. We just need to be safe about using them.
House Calls is written weekly by experts at Hamilton Health Sciences.
Dr. Natasha Johnson is a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at McMaster Children's Hospital.