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Those three attention-grabbing words can often make parents a bit uneasy when they think about how they relate to their kids. The words are also the title of a new book from Megan Moreno, MD, who heads up the Social Media & Adolescent Health Research Team at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Moreno is an adolescent medicine specialist at Seattle Children’s and she sees patients on a regular basis. Her aim, based on her research, is that healthy Internet use will one day be discussed in the same way we tell young people to get enough sleep, to drink in moderation and to eat healthy foods. She even sees it as a topic that will be brought up in the doctor’s office one day. Have you had your vaccinations, talked about safe sex and discussed your Facebook and Twitter habits?

Kids create online content through social media

“Ten years ago, young people were reading content on the Internet,” said Moreno. “But today, they’re creating it.” Moreno was inspired to tackle this topic, in part, because she has two young daughters and she can relate to the concerns of other parents. “I also see teenagers in clinic all the time whose parents have questions about social media: What are the right sites, what is the right age for using these sites and what are the rules?” she said.

In the book, Moreno and her team have created a field guide of sorts for parents to navigate what she calls “the jungle” of the Internet.

What is the right age to start using social media? “For every family, it’s going to be a little bit different,” Moreno said. She dedicates an entire chapter of the book to understanding Internet use across various ages and stages, including tweens (ages eight to 12) all the way up to older adolescents (ages 18 to 15).

Tweens, for example, are impressionable and are likely to believe what they read on the Internet. Parents should actively seek opportunities to discuss their tween’s Internet experiences or opportunities for teaching and discussion can be missed.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, parents will interact a lot less frequently with older adolescents. But at that age, children will start to value a parent’s opinion in an adult-to-adult way. Parents should continue to be inquisitive. If parents notice that their child is displaying underage drinking pictures or posting inappropriate content on Facebook, they may consider saying something privately to their child about the long-term implications of the behavior.

“It’s not just one conversation,” Moreno said. “It’s a continuum of conversations, and we give parents different tools for the different time points in life.”

Navigating the social media jungle

Navigating the online jungle can be daunting for parents that didn’t grow up with it. But parents know the basic safety rules, including “don’t talk to strangers” and “don’t go into a strange and dark alley.” Moreno said that a lot of those rules translate into similar rules in the digital world.

“Similar to the jungle, you should filter your water because you’re not just going to drink everything that comes your way,” she said. “Shine a light in those dark alleys, don’t trust every website you visit, and if you see things that look sketchy, navigate your way back up the path and get out.”

Parents have a great role to play, when armed with the right questions to ask. Young people also have a role to play. “Teens can help us figure out how to sign up for Instagram, explain what Tumblr is and show us how to make a video for Vine,” she said, with a smile.

Learn more about “Sex, Drugs ‘n Facebook” from Moreno tonight, Oct. 2, at 7 p.m. PST on Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Facebook page.

Resources:

SMAHRT Research
Social media research from On the Pulse
Sex, Drugs ‘n Facebook on Amazon.com
Sex, Drugs n’ Facebook: What parents & teens need to know (New Day Northwest, September 2013)

If you’d like to interview Dr. Moreno, please contact Seattle Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or at press@seattlechildrens.org.