Facebook for grownups

It appears to be the top health news story of the week already: The American Academy of Pediatrics published new guidelines Monday to help pediatricians be on the lookout for depression, cyberbullying and other concerns associated with use of the social media.

It’s about time. There’s been considerable debate over whether Facebook, chat rooms and other online activities are good or bad for kids’ health. The AAP’s clinical report, which appears in the latest issue of the Pediatrics journal, cites a Common Sense Media poll indicating 22 percent of adolescents log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day and more than half visit one of the social sites, such as Facebook, at least once a day.

The risks include harassment, indiscreet behavior, potential exposure to inappropriate photos and information, and “Facebook depression,” the feeling that all your friends are more popular and having more fun than you are.

These are all very real concerns. The cut-and-thrust of the social scene among pre-teens and adolescents can be quite ferocious, with plenty of potential for kids to get into trouble. But what I want to know is: Should there be guidelines for adults too?

Adults are presumably more mature, more experienced and better equipped to navigate the social media. Or are they?

Unwise behavior knows no age limit. Adults can be stalked or bullied on the Internet too, or captured in a moment of indiscretion with possible repercussions for their career and/or personal and professional relationships. (Consider a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which polled medical students anonymously about their online experiences and found episodes of profanity, sexually suggestive comments, discriminatory language, depictions of drunkenness and illegal drug use, and violations of patient confidentiality.)

Depression and low self-esteem know no age limit either. Although social sites such as Facebook can be a wonderful way for depressed adults to connect with the rest of the world, they sometimes end up feeling worse if they perceive they’re not measuring up to everyone else’s page on Facebook. And let’s not even get into the emotional intricacies of friending. If you’re the competitive sort, you might feel like a loser if other people have way more friends than you. Even well-adjusted adults can feel a slight pang of rejection if someone doesn’t respond to their friend request or, worse yet, decides to unfriend them. (Been there.)

Nuances such as tone and facial expression can be lost online, creating misunderstandings and hurt feelings. When people have a significant emotional investment in online friendships, it can be upsetting when there are disagreements or when a debate gets personal. In one of the online communities I belong to, I’ve seen several instances of people becoming deeply offended or getting angry and storming offline after a discussion got too intense.

Even without these psychological minefields, the Internet and the social media sites have another unfortunate effect: They can easily become a vast sinkhole into which the minutes and hours disappear without a trace. Adults are just as prone as kids to frittering away their time on Facebook and chat sites, parked in a chair, not getting enough physical activity and staying up late into the night.

There’s also the potential for spreading inaccurate and possibly harmful health advice through Facebook discussions and other online interaction.

The social media aren’t just for kids. In fact, a study last year by the Pew Research Group found that social networking is growing the fastest among the older demographic. From April 2009 to May 2010, social networking among adults age 50 and older grew from 22 percent to 42 percent. An estimated one-fourth of people over age 65 are now online.

Should physicians be formulating guidelines for adult use of the Internet? Perhaps not. But they’d be smart to recognize what a force it can be, for both good and ill, in the lives of grownups as well as kids.

HealthBeat photo by Anne Polta