Forum explores children’s use of social media

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Social media is here to stay. Devices that connect us to the Internet, and to each other, are in our pockets and our classrooms.

The ease of constant connection causes both alarm and comfort, and many studies have explored its effects on our lives. This is felt acutely by students, who are becoming a part of the digital world at younger ages, and their parents who must navigate it with them.

On Jan 24, Edmeston Central School hosted Wendy Fical, the programme director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for a presentation raising awareness about the dangers of social media and its openness as well as its anonymity.

While her talk centered on assessing and avoiding threats of predation, which are primarily executed over the Internet, Fical explained, there is also the pressure to be logged on at all times.

 A study published in November by researchers at San Diego State and Florida State universities found that an increase in instances of depressive symptoms and anxiety, particularly among young women, correlated with an increase in use of social media. The more time spent on social media, the more likely a teenager was to express feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. This trend has escalated between the study intakes from the 2009-2010 school year.

Inversely, the study showed that other factors, such as homework, face-to-face interaction and exercise correlated with lower levels of depressive thoughts.

“They keep it private, so it’s hard to say,” explained Amanda Conklin, secondary guidance counselor at Edmeston. “They’re kids, they don’t always share what’s going on. But things have definitely changed. Kids can’t get away from the phones, they sleep with them in their beds.”

Another guidance counselor in the area, who wished to remain anonymous, also agreed that the change is noticeable.

“You can feel the increase,” the counselor said. “People post the top one percent of their life online, and then you compare your entire life to that one picture, that can cause depressive tendencies.”

The school the guidance counselor works for has witnessed more students, and at younger ages, being diagnosed with depression and anxiety, he said.

That is the perennial question between children and their parents: how much do you know, and how much can you know?

April Vunk, who was at the Edmeston presentation, said she maintains open communication with her 15 year-old son, but echoed the sentiment of worry about what she doesn’t know.

“It’s scary,” Vunk said. “I also don’t want to be the parent that thinks everything is okay and totally misses what’s going on.”

A parent commented during the presentation that it felt like a war between him and his son.

Students interviewed spoke about their social media use had a different perspective, and focused on the benefits of being able to share and connect so easily. They said that their relationships to social media were healthy, and while the pressures are present, they’re something that they learned to navigate.

Common apps among the students were Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.

Emily English, a senior at Oneonta High School, said she got her first smartphone – a hand-me-down from her father – five years ago. She said that she uses social media less than a lot of her classmates, but doesn’t feel pressure to use it any more than she does.

“I don’t feel like there’s insane pressure to use it, but I think you can judge others on what they say or what they look like. I try not to, but it happens,” Caroline Bagby, a senior at Oneonta High School said. She said she has owned a smartphone for five years.

Jack Flynn, a 15 year-old sophomore at OHS, said he has owned a smartphone since he was in fifth grade, and that over time he has become less naive and learned to use social media more effectively.

“People get in fights online, but they usually resolve it pretty quickly,” he said.

Increasingly, schools rely on computers and digital connection for homework assignments as well as communication between teachers and students. This constant presence has lead to school leaders and parents to be concerned about “digital citizenship”.

Fical stressed the importance of open communication between parents and their children.

Fical said that while she respects different parenting methods, it’s important that parents regularly communicate with their children about social media use. Maintaining a positive, open dialogue can help children and teenagers make healthy decisions online, she said.