More than half of America's teens are socializing online, and while Facebook, Twitter and other sites provide a forum for self-expression and staying connected to friends, youth need education and support to develop the skills required to understand the potential risks of constant cyber communication.
Of teens ages 13 to 17, more than 60 percent have at least one profile on a social networking site, with many spending more than two hours per day on it, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Prior to allowing them to sign up for an account, the AACAP suggests parents let their child know how mom or dad will monitor their Internet usage, set time limits and spell out what the consequences will be if their usage interferes with schoolwork, family time or external social activities.
Rebecca Thompson has helped her children make the right decisions when it comes to choosing social networking sites. Time spent on the websites at home for her two junior high school students are limited. User names and passwords are shared with Thompson and her husband, who both monitor their children's accounts.
"This teaches them a lot about peer pressure," she said, "about doing the right thing when someone is being made fun of or if pictures are being posted that shouldn't be. If they are ever uncomfortable about anything they see, we ask them to share it with us. We want it to be a safe and fun way for them to communicate with their friends."
Numbers can vary, but the fact is, bullying exists in schools in Alabama and across the country.
And with the continued prevalence of social media, a new type of bullying -- cyber bullying -- has emerged.
A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development estimated that 1.7 million U.S. children in grades six through 10 could be identified as bullies.
The study found that 10.6 percent of students reported bullying others "sometimes" (moderate bullying) and 8.8 percent admitted to bullying others "once a week" or more (frequent bullying).
Bullying occurs most frequently from sixth to eighth grade, with little variation seen between urban, suburban and rural areas, according to the study.
"We've recognized that these tools (cellphones and tablets) can be really effective, especially for improving communication skills and interaction," Montgomery Public School spokeswoman Mona Davis told the Advertiser earlier this year. "But for every positive thing, it brings negatives, too -- cyber bullying and rumors starting. It's a big distraction to the learning process."
Davis noted that MPS has worked diligently to address cyber bullying.
"At our middle school level, we've done a lot of work talking to students about how to use these tools," she said of social networking sites. "We've talked to them about cyber bullying, sexting, and how to report it. It's (cyber socialization) really opened up another area that schools have to address."
Peer mediation training has been offered at elementary and junior high schools throughout the district. Seven schools were trained this past academic year, with about 12 students selected as peers at each school. Conflict resolution scenarios include how to resolve arguments stemming from negative comments posted on Facebook.
Education starts at home
Proactive parenting can help parents become a fun part of their teenager's social life, according to the AACAP. However, if parents feel their child is spending too much time on social networking sites, or is involved in inappropriate behaviors while using these sites, they advise them to seek out a professional who can help the parent and child find balance and appropriateness in the usage of the medium.
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