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Special Report: Social networking dangers

Facebook. Twitter. Youtube: These and other social networking sites that can hook you and pull you in for hours. But could an online persona become a dangerous obsession for your kids?
LITTLE ROCK, AR - How much time do your kids spend texting or on the internet each day? Two hours? Four hours?

There is startling new information from an Arkansas researcher that suggests spending too much time on social networking sites can actually be dangerous.

The Bowen family didn’t have much experience with Facebook when their oldest son, Lewis, started using it a few years ago. And what they saw in the months to follow, they didn’t like.

“I’ve had an experience a couple times when I’ve been on there for six hours, and I’ve been like, wait, what time is it?” Lewis said.

And that worried Araly Bowen and her husband enough to take drastic measures with all their children’s internet use.

“He secluded himself, he separated himself from his family,” Araly said. “He would go upstairs and want to lock his room [instead of] socialize with the family.”

UAMS Psychiatrist Dr. Erick Messias understands the Bowens’ concerns.

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s those moments of not being able to control it,” Dr. Messias said. “They’re going to break themselves down for interactions with society.”

Dr. Messias has studied the internet’s effect on kids, and says while sites like Facebook can help kids overcome their shyness, it can be dangerous, too.

“That tool, if it’s overused, instead of helping them socialize, could actually isolate them,” Dr. Messias said.

So what is the breaking point? Dr. Messias says that spending two hours or less online a day seems to make for a well-adjusted kid. Four hours or more, and you’re crossing into dangerous territory, as kids who spend that much time online are more prone to depression and thoughts of suicide.

According to Dr. Messias’ research, one in twelve children in this country is spending four or more hours online every day.

“For thousands of years, humans have interacted in one way – and that’s face to face,” Dr. Messias said. “The human brain will suffer from a lack of social interaction.”

And now online social interaction starts young. Websites such as Club Penguin, Kidzbop and Togetherville all target grade school children.

Most of the students at Mills High School in Pulaski Country didn’t get Facebook pages until they wee 14-years or older. But now, they like being in touch with their friends on a 24-7 basis.

Plus, the technology helps them maintain relationships.

But these kids understand the risks of abusing social networking sites, among those risks, cyber bullying. They say it’s easy to lose your sensitivity to human nature when you’re online.

And some even know people who seem to be trading in their physical social lives for digital social lives online.

Dr. Messias says if your child is showing signs of social development problems from excessive internet use, policing their access would be a good first step.

The best recommendation for developing children is two hours or less per day. This problem is complicated by the ease at which kids can access the internet from their smart phones.

But Dr. Messias says there are ways to limit daily internet usage – talk to your provider to see what your options are for limiting use of the phone’s internet capabilities.

That’s what the Bowen family ended up doing, and they hope their children will have healthier social lives as a result.
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