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Photo: Hands Credit: Griszka Niewiadomski

McAfee released a “paper” recently entitled, “The Secret Online Lives of Teens” revealing the dirty secrets of teenage online activity.  Among the revelations: over a quarter of kids have allowed their computers to be infected with malware or a virus (maybe McAfee should read Imperva’s “Assessing the Effectiveness of Antivirus Solutions” paper?), 80% of kids are participating in (gasp!) social networks, and one-third of teens don’t reveal everything they do online to their parents (they have developed revolutionary systems of concealment where they “minimize their browser” to conceal their activity, and “clear the browser history” to hide sites they have visited).  As a serendipitous co-winky-dink, McAfee offers a software solution for parents to take control of their teenager’s online activity.

In a recent talk, a researcher for Child Watch Project revealed that all of the following may occur in children excessively using social media: narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder.  It also purportedly makes them susceptible to future health problems.  Teens who use social media purportedly lack essential life skills such as food label literacy, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases,wearing of a helmet while riding motorcycles, and being able to control their temper.

If you want to craft a compelling call to action, tell people that they will lose the hearts and souls of their children unless they use your product.  Better yet, blame the corruption of youth on the dreaded, nebulous scourge of “social media.”

Stating the obvious

More than 12% of the world regularly use one or more social networks.  53% of the US population uses Facebook.  The infallible repository of crowdsourced knowledge Wikipedia lists 200 unique social networks (and that is a huge underestimation).  Point being that social networks have grown extraordinarily large in a small period of time.

The average age of users on the major social networks is around 40, so many people who are familiar with Facebook have children who are or will soon be using social networks.  Both of my pre-Kindergarten age kids can navigate effortlessly on Apple devices.   There are a lot of things that parents might be fearful of, and a lot of the fearfulness stems from the desire to do the best thing for our children.  But parents aren’t the only audience ripe for exploitation.

In Guy Kawasaki’s book Author-Publisher-Entrepreneur he describes services to create social media profiles that cost into the thousands of dollars.  You’ve probably seen commercials on television for companies offering to set up “free” websites for a monthly fee (kind of a paid Geocities without the content control).  Business owners are as ripe for fear-based marketing around social media as parents are; after all their businesses are their “babies.”

Social media gets a bad rap

Fear-based marketing is nothing new.  Robert Cialdini (and many other people) have pointed out how psychologically powerful loss aversion is for people.  The thing about social media is that it is mysterious and widespread enough to make some pretty outrageous claims plausible.

The challenge is to weed out the absurd from the legitimate.  When a lecturer describes an increase in bipolar disorder caused by social media, we probably should check and see if there has been recent increase in bipolar diagnoses (there hasn’t).  But when Shelly Turkle and Ellen Bremen describe the effects of social media on everyday communications skills, or when Turkle or Kathy Savitt discuss the experience of kids growing up with parents on social media, we should take notice.  There’s a lot of relevance to understanding the ramifications of social networks on our behavior and experience.

But when someone’s just trying to sell you something, social media probably isn’t as insidious as they are reporting it to be.

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Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at leaderswest.com
I aspire to give people something to think about rather than tell them what to do. My favorite Google Alert is "social media research," I am increasingly compelled by Gen Z, and I appreciate good writers agnostic of where they write. At one time I was Kred's 12th most influential social media blogger and Klout's most influential person on the topic of David Hasselhoff. Transplant from Seattle living in Cincinnati. Haven't entirely adopted the local sports teams yet.
Jim Dougherty
Jim Dougherty
Jim Dougherty
  • http://www.arielmarketinggroup.com/ Amy McCloskey Tobin

    I am SO glad to see you write this. I almost blew my top when I saw a post by Digital Royalty advocating that parents push their children to grow their brands and connections via Soc. Media stating that “perhaps” universities would choose two otherwise equal students based on their number of connections. Of course Digital Royalty was trying to sell a course, to parents… to brand children as young as 10!!!

    Think back to how the most successful high school pals of yours behaved in school – they were STUDIOUS, right? At least most of them.

  • http://twitter.com/sheconsulting esta h. singer

    Uh, yeah, worked at a psych facility for 5 years counseling kids; while social media didn’t exist at the time, I can say with confidence that while social media can incite certain mirrored behaviors, narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder evolve in the family foundation. Bipolar disorder is neurological; you’re born with that. Borderline personality disorder kids are highly manipulative, and traditionally cut, anything to show their pain on the inside, outwardly. I think the Child Watch Project should qualify and define their psych terms or at least state that this is only an hypothesis. I agree with “Fear-based” marketing theory. The responsibility of raising healthy kids always starts in the home, always with parents.

    With the exception of that issue, the article is great and yes, attention does need to be paid to kids online activity, safety and social interactions with family and peers.

  • jimdougherty

    Esta! I didn’t expect someone with expertise to validate my points – that’s so awesome. Obviously as a parent I feel very responsible for the health of our kids, but you read books like Freakonomics that show evidence that external influences have huge impact on childresn’s development and outcomes, and as a parent I freak out. And my wife and I are pretty fortunate to have a lot of time with them. So I may talk about these studies very callously, but I read the McAfee study because the conclusions freaked me out… :) Thank you so much for commenting Esta! You are awesome and this comment is another example of why we need to post some of your insights on LW!

  • jimdougherty

    Oh my goodness – I didn’t see that study. Of course, I can see how a high Klout score might help, great evidence of high academic performance! As I conveyed to Esta, I’m one of those parents that freaks out about this stuff, and my kids are three and one. Imagine me in ten years – I will need powerful medication (and someone will probably market it to me as a sufferer of “overprotective parent disorder”). Thanks so much for your comment and for making me feel less freakish!