Social networks and cyber bullies: What are your patients telling you?

March 1, 2011

Youth spend up to 10 hours a day using a wide variety of media, including computers.

Youth spend up to 10 hours a day using a wide variety of media, including computers.1 One of the major uses of the computer is to access the Internet, and most adolescents have Internet access not only through their home computers but also through laptops, cell phones, and other mobile devices. Most adolescents report daily use,2,3 and approximately 20% of their media consumption is estimated to take place using mobile platforms.1

Concomitant risks to Internet use include privacy concerns and a phenomenon known as cyber bullying.2 Some of these risks can be mitigated by appropriate guidance provided by pediatricians.

Social networking sites

Adolescents who maintain an SNS profile are able to choose and modify its content on a moment-to-moment basis. A widely used feature of some SNSs is called "status updates," which allows users to share a short text description of their current location, emotion, or activity. Facebook provides a venue for profile owners to share photos and also to describe their favorite sports, movies, music, and other activities and link via these interests to other profiles with similar interests. Thus, SNSs allow adolescents opportunities for self-expression and identity development through what they choose to display and communicate on their profiles.

There are a variety of ways that SNSs provide avenues for communication. Adolescents can use messaging to communicate privately. This functions similarly to email but is a profile-to-profile communication. They can also send instant messages to other profile owners whose profiles are linked as "friends" if they also are online at that time. Teens can keep their Facebook profile open in a window on their computer and do homework while chatting online with other friends who also are on Facebook. They also can publicly comment on the content of their peers' profiles and thus leave a digital record of their opinions about events as well as content displayed by peers. Through "friending" and mutually accessible content, there are many opportunities for self-expression and a means of peer communication and feedback.5-7

Online safety risks

Adolescence frequently is a time of behavioral experimentation, which for some includes health risk behaviors.8 These behaviors may become part of the displayed identity presented on SNS profiles. Approximately half of adolescent SNS profiles feature references to 1 or more health risk behaviors.9-11 One study found that approximately 41% of older adolescents' profiles displayed references to substance use, and 24% displayed references to sex.11 Further, most profiles contain information that clearly identifies the profile owner.10

Displaying risky behavior information on a personal Web profile makes this information available in a globally public way. Content displayed on a profile can be copied, downloaded, or distributed by any profile viewer. Additionally, this information may become accessible to people whom the profile owner would prefer not to view it, such as potential employers, teachers, or parents and other adults. Some employers screen potential job candidates through social media tools such as Facebook.12

Regardless of whether displayed content on an SNS is real, adolescents may respond to another's disclosures as though they were, and this in turn may influence teen behavior. One study found that adolescents viewed displayed alcohol references on SNS profiles as accurate and influential representations of alcohol use.13 Further, display of sexual content by females has been linked to increased sexual expectations by males who view these profiles.14

Given the popularity of SNSs, they may even function as a media superpeer, promoting and establishing norms of behavior among adolescents.15

For example, alcohol references on SNS may promote the illusion that drinking is without risk and may even promote alcohol initiation, a process known as media cultivation.16 Further, social learning theory predicts that teens who see characters displaying references to behaviors such as risky sex without experiencing negative consequences will be more likely to adopt the behaviors portrayed.17