Children whose parents don't ask them about their online activities and don't monitor their use of Facebook are less healthy, more narcissistic, and perform worse at school than children whose parents restrict their technology use, Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, said at APA's 2011 Annual Convention.
In his research on how Facebook and other technologies affect the health and well-being of today's youth, Rosen has found that students who use Facebook more throughout the day are more prone to mental health problems, have worse grades and tend to be sick more often than peers who use social media less frequently.
"Young kids look at technology the way I look at air," said Rosen. "It's not just a tool to them, they sleep with it, they wake up with it, and it's part of their world."
In one as-yet-unpublished study he conducted this year, Rosen observed the study habits of 279 middle-school, high school and university students in 15-minute blocks. Rosen recorded how long each student spent studying before he or she checked Facebook or paused to send a text message to a friend. Students who flipped back and forth between studying and such distractions had worse grades than those who stuck to their schoolwork until they were finished, said Rosen.
"Whether they checked Facebook just one time during a 15-minute observation period even predicted worse grades," said Rosen.
In another study, conducted in 2009, Rosen surveyed 1,000 parents about how much time their kids spent online, their eating habits, exercise routine, overall physical and mental health and use of other technology, such as video gaming systems. Rosen found that even when he accounted for demographics, eating habits and lack of exercise, media and technology still had a powerful effect on the children's health.
Those who used more hours of media were more unhealthy across the board, from elementary school age through high school, said Rosen. They reported more sick days, more stomach aches, more depression and worse behavior in school. "You name it, [they had] more of it," he said.
To see whether social media had a similar effect on mental health, Rosen conducted a follow-up study this year to look at whether frequent use, especially of Facebook, could predict signs and symptoms of personality disorders among young users. His preliminary findings show that frequent Facebook use among teens correlates only with narcissism, but for young adults, it correlates with signs of many disorders, including narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder.
Despite such evidence, Rosen—a fan of Facebook himself—said he believes that there are positive aspects to social media use among youth. In 2011, he and colleagues found that young adults who spend more time on Facebook than their peers are also better at showing "virtual empathy" to their online friends and that such online empathy predicts real-world empathy.
"There even appears, statistically, to be a causal link there, that they are practicing it to put the real-world empathy out there," said Rosen. "The more time they spend interacting, sharing and connecting online, the more real-world empathy they have."
Parenting style is what can make the difference between too much Facebook and just the right amount, added Rosen. In a 2008 study, he found that when parents use an authoritative style—establishing firm rules about online use, setting clear limits and talking about possible negative consequences in advance—their children tend to use the Internet in moderation and have more self-esteem and less depression than peers with parents who aren't as rules-oriented.
"We can't simply assume that we can trust what [our children] are doing," he said. "We also can't go the other way and attach software to their computers that monitors their keystrokes. Most kids could figure that out in five minutes."
Instead, parents should assess their child's activities on social networking sites, and discuss removing inappropriate content or connections to people who appear problematic. Parents also need to pay attention to the online trends and the latest technologies, websites and applications children are using, he said.
"You need to talk to your kids, or rather, listen to them," Rosen said. "Talk one minute and listen for five."