internet safety for teens

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

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Cyberbullying and Other Internet Dangers

Teen depression, cyberbullying and the downside of social media 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 have in suicide-related behavior is a topic of growing interest and debate, according to the American Journal of Public Health. Schools across the country are warning parents about the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” stating it glorifies suicide as a revenge-like choice. The premise of the series includes online harassment, assault and bullying of a teenage girl who ultimately takes her own life and leaves behind 13 videos with reasons why she made that painful decision.

Cyberbullying is defined as an intentional and repeated targeting of one child by another in the form of threats, harassments or humiliation. The goal is to embarrass the victim by means of cellular phones or internet technologies such as e-mail, texting, 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 for those who already have preexisting emotional, psychological or environmental stressors. Bullying increases feelings of isolation, anxiety, instability and hopelessness.

25% of teenagers report that they have experienced repeated bullying by their cell phone, or on the Internet.


Whether adolescents use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram 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 are in a unique position to help families understand these sites and to encourage healthy use and urge parents to monitor for potential problems with cyberbullying, “Facebook depression,” sexting, and exposure to inappropriate content.

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, 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
  • Hurting oneself, 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 amount 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 and more younger children taking their own lives because they think there is no other option.

  • Get help right away. Bring your teen to a hospital emergency department if you are worried he/she may hurt himself/herself or others.
  • Listen to your teen. This is not easy, particularly if you’re panicked. It’s not up to you to “fix” his/her problems. Ask your teen specifics about the situation and his/her feelings, as well as if he or she 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 him/her see a brighter future, but convey that whatever is felt in the moment, your child is not alone and bring up his/her positive attributes.
  • 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.
Victims of cyber bullying are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and consider suicide.

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 kids today. Acceptance is important whether that means being the best at or first to complete a challenge, getting the most “likes” on social media or being tagged on a recent post.

Impulsivity is common among adolescents who don’t always think about consequences that may result from an impulsive behavior. Privacy is a thing of the past and too often, younger generations prefer that every thought or moment should go viral. It’s the age in which we live. Taking precautions to ensure your child’s safety requires educating yourself about what it means for a kid growing up in a technological world. Speaking your child’s language and letting them know the negative and permanent ramifications of social media can prepare them for a happier, healthier approach to life in general. That’s a challenge any parent would be willing to take on!

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Featuring Jose Delerme, PhD

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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