Last month we talked about the emergence of computer based social networks as illustrated by the popular website, MySpace.com. Through this sight more than fifty million users interact with each other, with live "chats," pictures, music and more. The pitfalls of this type of site are many for the pediatric population who is still learning how to navigate social relationships, societal boundaries and peer interactions.
Computer based relationships between individuals lack much of the feedback mechanisms that allow individuals to learn appropriate social behaviors. The computer screen places an artificial barrier where neither body language nor the true reaction of either persons involved can be judged. This permits language to be exchanged without consequences that might otherwise not be acceptable.
Instead of learning social mores, an individual may abruptly "log off," rather than respond to confrontation or inappropriate "conversations." This is not reality. As such, many children who use this type of network for a large part of socializing are not prepared to handle real life social interactions. This would involve another person who may verbally or physically respond in an immediate and emotional way.
In addition, the validity of the information being exchanged has no means to be verified. Therefore, the entire relationship may easily be manipulated with little or no cues. Certainly this is a possibility in a face-to-face relationship as well. However, there are at least some things that would be more obvious, such as a person's physical presence, intonation, and gestures.
It is not the purpose of this discussion to imply that there are not positive elements to online networks. Children in classes together may form online homework study groups, joint research school projects, or may communicate with students from other schools or countries. These networks could also benefit a child who, for some reason, was not able to participate in a traditional social setting. Many other benefits may also be gained from the efficiency of this mode of exchanging information. These items must, however, be reviewed alongside the potential pitfalls.
As a physician, I am always weighing the benefits versus the harm of any potential advice or treatment that I offer a patient. It is my duty to endorse only those items that I believe the benefits largely supercede the risks. In the case of unrestricted, non-academic related online social networks and the pediatric population, it seems the harm that may come to a child is much greater than the gains he may receive. Parents should investigate these networks themselves if their child is involved, and inquire into the specific details of their interactions.