The AAP Social Media Clinical Report: what it’s really about

By now you’ve seen all the headlines about last spring’s new AAP clinical report and “Facebook Depression”. I’m sure those sound bytes and headlines caused you to stop your channel surfing and click on a webpage or two, which created a firestorm of media buzz. Unfortunately, it also created a great deal of confusion that I’m certain I can help with. How can I be so certain? Because I’m the lead author of the clinical report and can tell you with 100% accuracy that this report is not at all about Facebook Depression, although it does mention it in passing.

The title of the clinical report says it all:

“The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families”.

The media has reported this new publication as a study but that is incorrect. We did not do new research but reported on the state of current research and data in social media that impacts the health and well being of children.  As a clinical report, we included the main areas of social media that pediatricians need to be aware of to inform them of the many ways social media affects kids of all ages and families, positively and negatively, in their health, growth and development.  The report, by definition, is descriptive and meant to guide pediatricians to areas to pay attention to when seeing families in the clinical setting. We relied on the best available evidence available to us at the time we prepared the clinical report and the top experts in the fields of pediatrics, psychiatry, law and social media in and out of the AAP.

Like you’d suspect, we offer up a variety of statistics to summarize the social media landscape and give our colleagues a sense of how kids and teens are using social media in their lives. We then move on to the meat of the paper.

First up, the benefits of social media. This is an entire page of the 5 page report and go through a variety of ways social media enhances kids lives.

Next up, the risks. There are three big areas: cyberbullying and harassment, sexting, then Facebook Depression. The latter is the smallest section occupying only 1/6 of a page. In that section, we note clearly that this is a “new phenomenon” and clearly state that it is “defined as “depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.”

The next sections are “privacy concerns and the digital footprint” followed by  “the influences of advertisements on buying” and then “On Too Young: mixed messages from parents and the law”.

We end with a section called “The Role of The Pediatrician” which is really the main emphasis of the clinical report. In that section we help pediatricians pull together how to help families in the clinical setting with advise that is aimed to help families talk together and work on beefing up their digital skills.

As for the media hype over “Facebook Depression”, we stand by what we reported and are in good company with other experts who see social media sites such as Facebook setting teens up for this phenomenon.

On  My Health News Daily, for example, the following expert opinions were noted:

Dr. Scott Campbell from the University of Michigan noted

“Like anything else in life, too much time on Facebook — or the Internet in general, for that matter — can be a bad thing….For the most part, depression and loneliness are associated with those extremely heavy users of the Internet who let the amount of time they spend online interfere with their offline connections.”

Dr. Mike Brody, child psychiatrist from Silver Springs, MD, adds:

“Kids become are very competitive, and kids want to be chosen…Facebook allows adolescents to see their friends’ successes, as well as the number of friendships those friends have. “It sets up a competitive thing where kids might feel less than they are because their friends seem to be having a better time than they are…I think the idea of envy and jealousy becomes very magnified through this medium.”

If you add to the above described situation someone already depressed, or heading that way, it’s easy to start to see how the Facebook environment could exacerbate that person’s symptoms. Keep in mind that it’s not the technology that’s the issue but the social situation that the technology has created and that’s why this is an area to keep an eye on for certain populations of teens.

We did not pull the term “Facebook Depression” out of thin air. To the doubters out there, a quick Google search will confirm that for you. Even more interesting is that since we gathered our initial resources, even more data has come out proving this phenomenon’s existence and we’ll be tracking that with much interest as this field evolves more.

In the end, this clinical report was designed for pediatricians to help families understand the world of social media, including Facebook, because I believe in the positive value that world can have on families when everyone focuses on health, safety and citizenship. As the dust settles and more people read the report, I have every faith that our comfort with social media and site such as Facebook with shine through.

My motivation behind writing this report with the AAP Council on Communications and Media was simple: to make the world of kids and teens, online and offline, a bit healthier and safer. If that sounds like some sort of agenda to anyone…than guilty as charged.

You can read the full clinical report here.

You can read my QA on the Facebook Safety site here.

You can see my YouTube video, “Don’t Fear Social Media” here.


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