Facebook: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Social Networking's Impact on Kids' Psychological Health

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 8, 2011 (Washington, D.C.) -- Facebook, texting, and instant messaging have positive and negative psychological impacts on kids, teens, and young adults, according to a leading researcher on social networking.

Although teens that frequently use Facebook often show more narcissistic tendencies, for example, they also may be more empathetic than teens who don't, says Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University in Dominguez Hills.

And although social networking can distract youngsters from studying, it also offers teens and young adults an appealing tool for communication, he tells WebMD.

To concerned parents, Rosen says, "Don't try to secretly monitor or restrain you children's keystrokes. How long do you think it will take them to find a workaround?"

Instead, talk to them about new technologies, he says. "You can learn from your kids, and they will feel reinforced," he says.

At the American Psychological Association meeting here, Rosen outlined his team's computer-based surveys into the risks and benefits of social networking.

Such surveys only show an association between social networking and psychological tendencies, not cause and effect. And you don't know which came first: the psychological traits or the social networking.

First, the Pros

In one new survey of 1,200 teens and young adults, the more time spent on Facebook and instant messaging, the greater their online and real-world empathy, or ability to understand and relate to others' feelings.

David Carlson, PhD, an Oklahoma City psychologist who heard Rosen's talk, tells WebMD he has no doubt that social messaging leads to real-life empathy.

"I see a lot of kids reaching out to friends, showing a lot of caring, online. And that translates to offline," he says.

Another positive: "Facebook help teens to express who they are," Rosen says.

Preliminary results from two recent surveys involving 3,702 people of all ages suggest that people aged 32 and younger use Facebook as a communication tool, much like texting and phone calls, he says.

Online social networking can also make it easier for shy kids and teens to socialize by reaching out to others from a smart device rather than in person, Rosen says.

Now, the Cons

In a 2009 survey of 1,030 parents, Rosen and colleagues found that children and teens that spent more time engaged in media (online and off) had more anxiety, more stomachaches, and more sick days from school.

In preteens and teens, time spent playing video games was also linked to poorer health, Rosen says.

The associations were true even after taking into account some factors that can affect health, including demographics, eating habits, and exercise.

In another ongoing, exploratory survey of 777 teens and young adults, Rosen found that spending more time than average on Facebook was associated with signs of narcissism, anxiety, and bipolar disorder on a standard psychological test.

In another 2011 study, 279 middle school, high school, and university students lost focus for an average of three minutes for every 15 minutes spent studying or doing another task.

And checking Facebook just once during the 15-minute period was associated with lower grades.

That's not surprising, he says, given that a recent survey by Wakefield Research suggested that 73% of college students can't study without some form of technology, and 38% cannot go more than 10 minutes without checking their laptop, phone, or other media.

Tips for Parents

Rosen embraces the TALK model of parenting: Trust, Access, Learn, "K"ommunicate.

"You have to start talking about appropriate technology use early and often and build trust, so that when there is a problem, whether it is being bullied or seeing a disturbing image, your child will talk to you about it," he says.

When talking with your kids, sit on the floor so you're on the same level, he advises. "Then, you talk for 5 minutes and they talk for 15 minutes," Rosen says.

Don't know what to ask? "Just ask what new technology they heard about this week. Chances are they have heard about something," he says.

Other tips:

1. Set rules and limits on technology use and behavior.

2. Ask the children/students for their thoughts and ideas about these rules and limits.

3. Set consequences for violations in advance. Consequences must be minor and then escalate if needed. Try behavioral contracts.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.


SOURCES: American Psychological Association's 119th Annual Convention, Washington, D.C., Aug. 4-7, 2011.Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor of psychology, California State University, Dominguez Hills.David Carlson, PhD, psychologist, Oklahoma City. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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