internet safety for teens

In the last decade, social media has taken center stage in the way our children interact with and react to everyone and everything. Most young people feel invincible anyway, but too many of them blur the lines between fantasy and reality. That’s one reason parents, schools, and medical professionals are called upon to understand social media dangers and raise awareness by talking with their children and each other.

Internet Dangers

Cyberbullying, negative use of social media, and teen depression have received their fair share of media attention. Yet, no matter how many school assemblies or news reports address these issues, new challenges continue to emerge, including intense situations for young people.

More than 30,000 suicide deaths occur each year in the United States, and the role that the internet—particularly social media—might play in suicide-related behavior is a topic of growing interest and debate, according to the American Journal of Public Health.

For example, schools across the country warned parents about the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” when it came out in 2017, stating that it glorified suicide as revenge. The premise of the series includes the online harassment, assault, and bullying of a teenage girl who ultimately takes her own life and leaves behind 13 videos explaining her reasons for making that decision.

What is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is defined as an intentional and repeated targeting of one child by another in the form of online threats, harassment, or humiliation. The goal is to embarrass the victim by means of cellular phones or internet technologies such as email, texts, social networking sites, or instant messaging.

Although cyberbullying cannot be a sole predictor of suicide in adolescents and young adults, it can increase the risk of it for those who already have preexisting emotional, psychological, or environmental stressors. Bullying increases feelings of isolation, anxiety, instability, and hopelessness.

Whether adolescents use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or Snapchat, all are portals for entertainment and communication. Unfortunately, the ways in which they often are used do not make them healthy environments for children and adolescents. Pediatricians and behavioral health specialists urge parents to monitor their children’s internet use for potential problems with cyberbullying, “Facebook depression,” sexting, and exposure to inappropriate content.

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Other Risky Online Behavior

Fitting in with their peers while at the same time wanting to stand out in a world where everything is on display can be confusing for teens. Being accepted is important at this age — whether that means being the best at or first to complete a challenge, getting the most “likes” on a picture, or being tagged in a recent post.

Impulse control can be hard for adolescents who don’t always think about the consequences of their words or actions. Privacy has become a thing of the past and, all too often, youngsters think that every thought or moment is post-worthy and should go viral. Speak your child’s language and explain that the internet is forever—and that social media can have negative and permanent ramifications on their future lives and careers.

Signs of Teenage Depression

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, recognizing the signs of depression and knowing what to do in the event your adolescent shows symptoms could be a matter of life or death. Talk to your pediatrician or mental health professional if you see any of the following:

Changes in activities, such as:

  • A drop in grades or school performance.
  • Neglect of personal appearance.
  • Neglect of responsibilities.

Changes in emotions, such as:

  • Appearing or talking about feeling sad, hopeless, bored, or overwhelmed.
  • Having outbursts, severe anger, or irritability.
  • Appearing or talking about feeling more anxious or worried.

Changes in behavior, such as:

  • Getting in trouble or being rebellious, aggressive, or impulsive.
  • Running away or threatening to run away.
  • Withdrawing from friends or family or having a change in friends.
  • Eating or sleeping less or more.
  • Losing interest in activities.
  • Using drugs or alcohol.
  • Doing self-harm, such as cutting or severe dieting.
  • Talking or writing about suicide or death.
  • Any suicidal behavior, even if it could not have been lethal, such as taking a small number of pills.

Don’t Wait to Act if You Are Concerned about Suicide

If your child or teen threatens suicide, don’t wait to take action or underestimate their intent. It’s always better to be safe than sorry — especially in the wake of more younger children taking their own lives because they think there is no other option.

Here are steps you can take:

  • Get help right away. Bring your teen to a hospital emergency department if you are worried they may hurt themselves or others.
  • Listen to your teen. This is not easy, particularly if you’re panicked. It’s not up to you to “fix” their problems. Ask your teen specifics about the situation and their feelings, as well as if they have thought about it in the past. Use words or phrases other than suicide such as “hurt yourself,” “end it all,” “escape,” “get away forever” or “go to sleep and never wake up.”
  • Express understanding and support. When your teen is feeling negative, it’s difficult to help them see a brighter future. Convey that no matter how they feel in the moment, they are not alone.
  • Talk with your teen’s doctor about treatment, including an evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist or other mental health professional.
  • Remove firearms from the home. Studies show that even when firearms in the home are locked up, teens are more likely to kill themselves than those in homes without firearms. A home is safest without firearms. If you must have a gun, make sure the gun is stored unloaded and locked in a safe or with a trigger lock, and bullets are locked in another place.

Behavioral Health Services for Children and Teens

UPMC has pediatric and adolescent behavioral health professionals in its UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics network of pediatricians’ offices located throughout Pennsylvania. In addition, UPMC has several behavioral health programs and services across the state to help parents learn more about mental health issues and find help for their children:

UPMC Western Behavioral Health at Safe Harbor provides Erie County, Pennsylvania, with a direct link to research-based care for many behavioral health conditions. Safe Harbor has health care professionals and crisis services available to address your child’s needs quickly, confidentially, and safely. Call (814-456-2014) for more information.

resolve Crisis Services is a 24-hour, 365-day crisis center sponsored by Allegheny County and UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. Services are provided free of charge to all residents of Allegheny County. At resolve, a trained counselor is always available to talk and to help—whether the problem is big or small. Resolve also has a mobile crisis team that can travel anywhere within Allegheny County to respond to a crisis. They provide face-to-face support and will work to arrange further care and stabilization if needed.

Don’t wait for a problem to get out of control. Call resolve Crisis Services for help at 1-888-796-8226 or visit the walk-in crisis center located at 333 North Braddock Ave. in Pittsburgh. No appointment is necessary. Walk in anytime to talk, get a break from stress, or connect with more long-term care and support.

Child and Adolescent Crisis Team Intervention Services (CACTIS) is a part of resolve Crisis Services and provides crisis intervention and supplementary support in the home, school, and community to children and adolescents with emotional and behavioral issues. CACTIS also provides support to children and adolescents who have been identified as being at high risk for psychiatric hospitalization or out-of-home placement. Crisis and support services are free to all children and adolescents who are residents of Allegheny County. For more information, call the CACTIS intake line at 412-864-5065.

Services for Teens at Risk (STAR) Center is a program that combines clinical and outreach services to help prevent adolescent suicide. Its mission is to offer state-of-the-art responsive care for children and adolescents with depression or anxiety, or who are at risk for suicidal behavior. For an emergency, please call 412-624-1000 or toll-free 1-877-624-4100.

The College Option – Services for Transition-Age Students at Risk (CO-STAR) program was created in response to state-wide concern about suicide among young adults who are attending a western Pennsylvania college or university. CO-STAR partners with local colleges and universities to provide rapid and comprehensive assessment and treatment for depressed, anxious, and suicidal undergraduate college students. For an emergency or to find out more, please call 412-624-1000 or toll-free 1-877-624-4100.

Postvention and Crisis Response Services can help educators and schools prepare for crisis situations. Advance planning has been shown to reduce the impact of an in-school tragedy. STAR-Center outreach staff consults with educators on providing postvention services and recommends that school districts — working closely with their communities — prepare for tragedies by developing policies and procedures that may be activated on very short notice. Our staff is available to any district or agency, 24 hours a day, by calling 412-864-3346.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.

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