Health: Social media affects the teens, tween's physical and mental health

Where's the happy medium for social media use?

Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette

Amber O'Connor (from left) and daughter, Sienna, 12, both of Cedar Rapids use Sienna's
Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette Amber O’Connor (from left) and daughter, Sienna, 12, both of Cedar Rapids use Sienna’s flip phone nicknamed the “T-Rex” at their home in Cedar Rapids on Feb. 25.

Twelve-year-old Sienna O’Connor refers to her cellphone as “T-Rex.”

Her parents — Amber and John O’Connor of Cedar Rapids — won’t let her have a smartphone. Unlike most of her friends, her phone can only call and text. There are no apps for going online or using social media.

From the perspective of an adolescent growing up in a hyper-connected world, her basic flip phone seems like something out of the Cretaceous period.

The O’Connors allow their daughter to have a tablet and a laptop, but use of both devices is monitored. This is how they’ve chosen to answer one of the more ambiguous questions many parents of today’s teens and tweens face — how much technology use is safe?

Just as parents are trying to determine what is acceptable for their family, researchers are also trying to figure out what is healthy. Marcus Barlow, program coordinator for the American Academy of Pediatrics Iowa Chapter, is one of those trying to find data that will arm parents with better information to make these decisions. He first became interested in the topic as a summer camp counselor.

“There were kids who, if I asked them what they missed about home said their X-Box or their phone, not their mom or dad or their dog,” he says.

He will discuss the effect of technology and social media on the health, development and mental well-being of adolescents at an event Wednesday at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. He’ll also share American Academy of Pediatrics research and policy statements, new technologies and social media sites that teens favor and strategies for fostering responsible and healthy social media usage.

The data is all so new that it can be hard to draw conclusions, he says, but some correlations have been drawn between teen and child technology use and health. ​

This is new territory for parents, too.


“It’s not something I hear parents talking with each other about — saying what do you do? And we as parents can’t really base it off anything we experienced when we were kids,” says Cedar Rapids mom Lisa Giruato, whose sons are 8 and 11.

She lets her older son use Instagram and Goodreads, but not Facebook or other social media networks. And she monitors his usage of those two sites.

“I monitor pretty much everything he says and responds to and what people he follows. He has to ask me if it is ok to follow someone, and it has to be somebody we know in real life,” she says. “I treat it the same way I would treat it with people who are involved in his life. I prefer to know who they are, and I prefer to know something about them.”

Technology use can be addictive, Barlow says.

Both hypertexting and hypernetworking are strongly associated with a range of poor health outcomes including substance abuse, sexual activity, absenteeism and fighting, according to a study printed in The Nation’s Health in 2011.

Teens send an average 60 text per day, with 20 percent of students reporting that they are hypertexters, sending more than 120 texts per school day. More than 11 percent of students reported spending 3 hours or more a day on social networking sites.

This concerns the O’Connors. So they don’t let their daughter keep her phone in her room at night. Texting with friends during the day is fine, but they also wants her to be able to unplug,

The same rules will apply to the O’Connor’s younger child, son Aidan, now 9, if and when he expresses interest.

“We’ve just heard too many stories of kids who were addicted to their phones,” O’Connor says. “And we know it’s healthy for everybody to disconnect from their phones.”


Other health concerns Barlow highlights stem from too much screen time. This is trickier to regulate, because that includes not just TV, gaming and social media time, but also school work or even using an e-reader.

Time spent in front of a screen means less time spent on other pastimes.

Children today spend 50 percent less time outside than they did 20 years ago, Barlow says. Current estimates are that children average 1/2 hour of unstructured outdoor play per week.

Some of the ramifications of this might be surprising. Studies indicate that all this time spent indoors might be affecting kids’ eyesight.

Between 1970 and 2000, myopia — nearsightedness — prevalence in the U.S. rose from 25 percent to nearly 42 percent among people ages 12 to 54. That could be because today’s kids are spending more time staring at screens up close instead of far off things outside, Barlow says. A 2007 study found kids who spend more time outdoors are less likely to develop nearsightedness.

There are also possible correlations with obesity and between attention deficit disorder and the instant gratification of constantly moving screens.

That doesn’t mean technology is all bad, Barlow says.

Leaps forward in education technology, help for students with disabilities and even the chance for kids who feel ostracized to connect with online communities have all had positive effects on some areas of health.

O’Connor says she knows schoolwork and the Internet are interconnected these days. That doesn’t mean she’s letting her daughter on social media just yet, however.

“I don’t anticipate her school projects will be on Snapchat or Facebook anytime soon,” she says.

Learn More

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, reception followed by discussion at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. S.E., Cedar Rapids

Cost: Free


Registration: Registration encouraged at†

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