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Protecting children online

Dr. Matthew Bartels first became concerned about what children can access online about nine years ago, when a teen patient looking to the Internet for help with anorexia stumbled into chat rooms and websites where young women shared tips about how to get skinnier.

He also has come to believe such access shares a connection with the growing number of cases of childhood depression and anxiety he’s seen since starting his practice 15 years ago.

“I can’t help but feel like what kids are faced with is that constant feeling of scrutiny … that fear that whatever they say or do could get disseminated to a wide number of people instantaneously,” said Bartels, father of four, a pediatrician with Lifetime Health Medical Group in Amherst and medical director with Univera Healthcare.

The Internet may have opened new windows into the worlds of ideas and opportunity, but teens who bury themselves in cellphones, smartphones and social media sites need to work with their parents to take steps to prevent mental health conditions, including cyberbullying, according to a recent article in the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Kids are more isolated online than when they’re interacting in real life situations, which can lead to anxiety and depression,” said Bartels, who suggests parents should err on the side of caution when giving kids access, and should closely monitor use.

According to a recent article by the pediatrics academy, researchers have observed an emerging phenomenon called “Facebook depression,” which can develop when preteens and teens spend excessive amounts of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and begin to display the typical symptoms of depression. The intensity of the online sphere is thought to be the cause.

Cyberbullying, a peer-to-peer form of harassment, is one of the main risks of using cellphones and social media.

“When I was a child, bullying was one-on-one,” Bartels said. “Now, bullying can go viral in a matter of minutes.”

Cyberbullying is defined by the pediatrics association as “deliberately using digital media to communicate false, embarrassing or hostile information about another person.”

Bartels recommends parents take steps to protect their children from cyberbullying by monitoring all of their children’s media devices and social media accounts, as well as their behavior.

“Don’t be afraid to question and take control of your children’s devices, review what’s happening on the smartphone or tablet, and limit use to public areas of the house,” he said. “Monitor their behavior; anxiety and depression are characterized by withdrawal from friends and activities, poor eating, and lack of sleep.”

Parents should assess their child’s maturity level before granting access to cellphones and social media sites. For younger children, phones with only texting and calling capabilities are more appropriate. Smartphones may be more appropriate for high school teens, Bartels said, but still should be monitored and regulated.

“Explain to them that having access to the Internet is a privilege,” he said, “and as part of that privilege, as a parent I would reserve the right to know what they’ve been viewing online.”

Other tips:

Teach responsibility: Help your children understand they are accountable for what they put online.

Teach privacy: A child or teen should use caution when accepting phone calls or text messages from numbers they don’t recognize, or posting personal information about themselves.

Teach compassion: Make sure kids understand posting negative comments about their peers or sharing private information about them is never acceptable.

Play your role: Model the behavior you expect from your kids and/or teens when it comes to cellphone and social media use.

Cellphones and social media, when monitored, can be useful. Swapping ideas and problem solving are the benefits secure social media sites can provide. The pediatrics academy suggests that social media can help kids stay connected to friends, family and classmates, as well as share ideas and photos. But Bartels stressed that nothing replaces face-to-face interaction, including between children and parents.

“I think every parent should be concerned when your kid stops talking,” he said. “Communication is key.”


On the Web: To read a local pediatrician’s thoughts on a North Buffalo house party gone wild, see

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