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Promoting Safe Use of Electronic Media

Promoting Safe Use of Electronic Media

A 14-year-old girl sends an e-mail to her ex-boyfriend, begging him to get back together. The boyfriend forwards the e-mail to all of their mutual friends. She is humiliated.

After a grueling evening waiting tables in a restaurant, a 17-year-old boy blogs about how much he hates his job and writes disparaging comments about his boss. He shows up to work the next day and is fired; afterward he learns that a coworker read the blog last night and showed it to his manager.

While driving to her after-school job, an 18-year-old high school senior's smartphone alerts her that a text message has arrived from one of her friends. She starts to reply to the message and doesn't realize that the car in front of her has stopped at a red light. She hits it while going about 20 miles per hour. Fortunately, no one is injured; however, the police report indicates (accurately) that she was texting while driving. Subsequently, the state suspends her driver's license for 1 year and her father receives a call from the insurance company indicating that the family rates will increase by $900.

"Texting," "tweeting," "friending," "IMing." Many physicians have heard their teenaged patients use these terms to describe how they communicate with their peers. Since the personal computer explosion of the 1980s, adolescents have been early adopters of new developments in the digital world. Over the past decade, tech-savvy teens have embraced the digital revolution in a way that astounds (and can intimidate) parents, teachers, and other members of earlier generations. A recently published Kaiser Family Foundation study demonstrated that older children and teenagers spend an average of 6.58 hours a day exposed to computers, video games, music, and TV content (much of which is delivered via a mobile electronic device or computer).1 A substantial portion of that media time involves social networking with their peers.

Although some (frequently younger) practitioners may use these social networking tools, others have only a passing familiarity with the technology and its implications for adolescent safety. (For those who feel "technologically challenged," I've provided a primer on the electronic communication modes most frequently used by teens [Box]).

Some may object that busy pediatricians barely have enough time to counsel teenaged patients about substance abuse, sexual health, sports safety, and sleep—let alone add a discussion of online activity to this list. However, given the extent to which adolescent patients are communicating electronically, it behooves clinicians to have sufficient familiarity with these modes of communication to be able, when appropriate, to counsel teens on the benefits and perils of living in cyberspace.


Adolescent electronic communication use cannot be viewed as all good or all bad. In many ways, social networking sites and online communication venues can provide a healthy way for adolescents to globally connect with peers. Even teens living in the most rural or remote areas can find peers with similar interests and can expand their social horizons beyond their immediate locality. In addition, the anonymity of the online communication world can help provide a "safe" venue for socially isolated teenagers to relate with peers who may be experiencing similar difficulties in their adolescence. For example, a teenager who is struggling with loneliness or family issues may be able to access a chat room for adolescents and there find (anonymously) peers with whom he or she can relate and problem-solve.


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