A team of our (smart) researchers from SMAHRT descended on Washington, D.C. last weekend for the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting. SMAHRT = Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team, which is based at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. This week, we’ll feature some of their new research. Megan Moreno, MD, leads the group and is a senior author on all of the research studies. Some of the researchers are based at other academic institutions, demonstrating the collaborative spirit of SMAHRT.

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As a researcher who is barely out of college myself, it’s interesting when I run focus groups with college students to ask them their opinions about Internet use, because I often share the same views. So when we asked college students what they think about younger generations using social media, their answers weren’t all that surprising to me. Basically, like many parents and pediatricians, college students are worried about the effects of early social media use.

As we all know, the use of social media is widespread and increasing in use among all age groups. While social media provides teenagers and young adults many benefits, including improving communication skills, being able to network with friends and family and staying informed about local and world news, it can also have risks, such as exposure to content that might not be age appropriate, cyberbullying, and even sexting (sending sexually explicit texts or pictures).

In order to gain a unique perspective on this issue, we asked college students to share their thoughts about the potential effects that social media may have on younger adolescents. We chose this population because college students are heavy users of social media and because the current generation of college students did not begin using social media until they were slightly older. We thought this would give them an interesting outlook on how it affects the generation below them.

Study findings

What did we find in our study? There were a few recurring themes that students kept coming back to. First, college students said that they were worried that using Facebook from an early age could affect the way younger kids grow up, especially in ways that might not be healthy. One student said, “My little brother is playing Farmville the other day and telling me about how he made like four new friends [online], and I’m like, ‘Are you serious? Like, go outside, throw a rock, do something!’”

A lot of students also pointed out that when kids use Facebook at an early age, they might see things online that they wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to as easily, including seeing older students drinking or engaging in other risky behaviors. One student said, “Younger kids are going to look up to older kids and see what they’re doing and want to do the same things, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, because older kids are drinking, and there’s really bad pictures of them. So [kids] are probably like, ‘Oh, they’re so cool, it would be fun to do things like that.’”

Not your parents’ Internet, or is it?

These results might be surprising to parents of older teens and college students, who see their kids constantly engaged in social media on smart phones or on computers, and who wouldn’t fathom these same kids being judgmental about social media. However, it’s interesting to note that these students are equally worried about younger siblings and relatives. This could be important for preventing the harmful consequences of early social media use that these college students pointed out.

For instance, college students may be good candidates to act as peer mentors or educators on the risks of social media, potentially by sharing their own experiences with the Internet and giving tips on how to use it safely and healthily. Younger children might be more willing to hear these tips from older adolescents, rather than parents or teachers who are often thought of as being out of touch with social media. Peer education has been effective in areas including sexual health.

Social media isn’t going anywhere. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are growing in popularity and it’s only a matter of time before your own child asks you to create a profile if they haven’t already. Young adolescents won’t be easily persuaded to stop using these new media, especially because the distinction between online and offline lives is rapidly diminishing. It’s important to meet kids where they are and teach them to use social media in healthy ways, rather than attempt to stop them from using it altogether.

Rajitha Kota, MPH, is a clinical research associate on the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team, Seattle Children’s Research Institute.