Number of Tweens Using Social Media Doubled 2009-2010

While parents have been leery of the safety risks posed by social media, they also face the age-old argument posed by children in the face of an allegedly unjust prohibition: "if you can do it, why can't we?" Lacking a convincing rationale, many parents are throwing in the towel and letting pre-teens use social media -- and in fact are often helping them, in a strategic move that allows them exert some kind of oversight and supervision.

According to a new survey of 1,000 U.S. adults by Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project, the number of children ages 10-12 who have a Facebook or MySpace account doubled from 2009-2010. Meanwhile 17% of parents say they don't see a problem with younger children using the sites, and 11% said they have actually helped their children create accounts on these sites (circumventing Facebook's policy forbidding anyone under age 13 from joining the network). However, 44% of parents say they try to limit the amount of time spent on the Internet or texting.

At the same time, a new survey of 4,427 adults in the U.K. suggests that social networking can have a negative effect on schoolwork, with 20% of parents saying their children's academic performance had suffered because of excessive time spent on sites like Facebook and MySpace, as well as social gaming. That number increased to 36% among parents of children ages 6-11.

Other studies have blamed social media for an even wider range of pre-teen maladies, including psychological problems: in November a wrote about a study from the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine warning that excessive use of social media -- specifically, "hypertexting" (sending more than 120 messages per school day) and "hypernetworking" (spending more than three hours per day on sites like Facebook) -- is linked to dangerous health problems and antisocial behavior in teens.

Among the Case Western findings, teens who hypertext are twice as likely to have tried alcohol; 3.5 times more likely to have had sex; 40% more likely to have tried cigarettes; 41% more likely to have used illicit drugs; 43% more likely to be binge drinkers; 55% more likely to have been in a physical fight; and 90% more likely to report four or more sexual partners. Hypernetworkers were 60% more likely to have four or more sexual partners; 62% more likely to have tried cigarettes; 69% more likely to be binge drinkers; 69% more likely to have had sex; 79% more likely to have tried alcohol; 84% more likely to have used illicit drugs; and 94% more likely to have been in a physical fight.

Some social networks seem designed for bullying and abuse: Formspring allows pre-teens and teens to pose questions about themselves which are answered anonymously, often with devastating effect. This bizarre network earned notoriety following the suicide of 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington, a high school student in West Islip, Long Island, after she received a string of vicious messages on Formspring.

Of course, the fact that the questions are posed voluntarily highlights the most difficult part of regulating social media use by kids -- namely, that it's voluntary. Likewise, I would argue most of the negative behaviors linked to social media by well-meaning critics are in fact simply reflections of the many troubling issues which face kids and adolescents in modern society.

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