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The stage is too big for kids

Social media can turn private growth into public spectacle.

April 02, 2011|Sandy Banks

As if parents don't have enough to worry about, with cyber-bullying and online perverts, now the nation's pediatricians are adding "Facebook depression" to the list of maladies stalking our kids.

According to a report released this week by the American Academy of Pediatrics, doctors may add a new trio of cringe-inducing questions to their screening checklist for teenage patients: "Are you on Facebook? How many friends do you have? And how does that make you feel?"

Apparently, kids with poor self-esteem can be pitched into depression by the perception that everyone on Facebook is having more fun that they are. They become obsessed with others' status updates and friend tallies. Some withdraw and lose interest in socializing; others try to court popularity by taking desperate measures to impress others.

Doctors feel the need to get involved because so many parents go to them "concerned about their children's engagement with social media."

I'm not surprised at that concern. Every day, it seems, we hear some frightening story about teenagers sexting or online harassment or someone's humiliating YouTube horror.

The doctors suggest that children spend less time online and that parents bone up by spending

more.

The risks to kids rest in parents' ignorance, the report in the journal Pediatrics says. "They frequently do not have the technical abilities or time needed to keep pace with their children in the ever-changing Internet landscape."

Parents ought to work on the "participation gap" in their homes by becoming better-educated about the technologies that their children worship.

I think the doctors are missing the point. Figuring out how to upload a video of a singing dog isn't going to keep my kids safer.

The problem is neither the fancy gadgets and social networks, nor a lack of parental knowledge and control. It's more a reflection of the cultural shift that has both teens and adults in its thrall.

And it's getting harder to avoid. You grow up watching "Jersey Shore" or Googling "Kim Kardashian" and you just might think that texting a nude photo of yourself to a boy is about as risque as, say, flashing a glimpse of her thong underwear was to Monica Lewinsky, once our notion of "harlot."

I'm lucky; my daughters are old enough to keep social media in perspective. But I called a therapist I trust — she's counseled adolescents for 30 years — to ask what she thinks of Facebook depression.

She's seen teenagers "devastated" by their Facebook friends' actions and comments, psychologist Veronica Thomas told me.

It was bad enough back in the day to be the lone kid not invited to Jerry's bar mitzvah. You might ease the sting by faking an illness on Monday so you wouldn't have to hear everyone at school talking about it. Now you'll probably spend party night alone and morose, scrolling through Facebook updates and cellphone photos — stuck with an in-your-face reminder of what a social failure you are.

What social networking has done is not just amplify the pain and raise the stakes but also recalibrate the dimensions of friendship. "It makes the quantity of friends and contacts seem much more important than the quality," she said.

The process of collecting "friends" online, instead of cultivating intimacy over time, can stunt the emotional growth of teens and deprive them of healthy social outlets, she said. "You feel validated because you have 500 friends. But you may not have anybody you can really expose yourself to."

Remember, Facebook started seven years ago as an outlet for college students. Now kids sign up in middle school, inviting people they barely know into what once was a private journey.

"Teenagers try on so many personalities in the process of growing up," she said. That's much harder to do onstage, to have the process chronicled in Facebook postings and witnessed by a bevy of virtual strangers.

Others' expectations can become your perception, Thomas said. "You're locked into living up to your Facebook persona. You don't learn what goes into building friendship … talking, disclosing, seeing how things evolve, fighting, forgiving, getting over it."

Without that private give and take, children can grow into adults without fully understanding the notion of friendship, she said.

Which might explain former UCLA student Alexandra Wallace.

That parody of geeky Asian kids? It might draw laughs from your buddies at a dorm room party. They know you're a good person, just mouthing off; they'll forgive your cultural blind spot. But it's not so funny when you get dolled up and act it out on YouTube for millions of others.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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