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Is the Internet hurting children?

By Chelsea Clinton and James P. Steyer, Special to CNN
May 21, 2012 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Chelsea Clinton and James Steyer says there's evidence that the explosion of computer use has changed the way kids think.
Chelsea Clinton and James Steyer says there's evidence that the explosion of computer use has changed the way kids think.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chelsea Clinton and James Steyer say we must ask: How are social media effecting kids?
  • They say explosion of online access for kids has opened Pandora's box of privacy issues
  • They say it's changed the way kids think, interact with others; discretion is abandoned
  • Writers: We need laws, norms, education to maximize benefit, minimize disasters of online use

Editor's note: Chelsea Clinton is a board member of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on media and technology's effects on children and teens, and wrote the foreword to "Talking Back to Facebook." James P. Steyer is founder and CEO of Common Sense Media and the author of "Talking Back to Facebook."

(CNN) -- Amid the buzz over the Facebook IPO, the ever-evolving theories about how Twitter is reshaping our communications and speculation about where the next social media-enabled protest or revolution will occur, there is an important question we've largely ignored. What are the real effects of all this on the huge segment of the population most affected by social media themselves: our children and our teens?

The explosive growth of social media, smartphones and digital devices is transforming our kids' lives, in school and at home. Research tells us that even the youngest of our children are migrating online, using tablets and smartphones, downloading apps. Consumer Reports reported last year that more than 7.5 million American kids under the age of 13 have joined Facebook, which technically requires users to be 13 years old to open an account. No one has any idea of what all of this media and technology use will mean for our kids as they grow up.

By the time they're 2 years old, more than 90% of all American children have an online history. At 5, more than 50% regularly interact with a computer or tablet device, and by 7 or 8, many kids regularly play video games. Teenagers text an average of 3,400 times a month. The fact is, by middle school, our kids today are spending more time with media than with their parents or teachers, and the challenges are vast: from the millions of young people who regret by high school what they've already posted about themselves online to the widely documented rise in cyberbullying to the hypersexualization of female characters in video games.

Chelsea Clinton
Chelsea Clinton

These challenges also include traditional media and the phenomenon of "ratings creep" in the movies that our kids consume. Movies today -- even G-rated ones -- contain significantly more sex and violence, on average, than movies with the same rating 10 or 20 years ago.

James P. Steyer
James P. Steyer

The impact of heavy media and technology use on kids' social, emotional and cognitive development is only beginning to be studied, and the emergent results are serious. While the research is still in its early stages, it suggests that the Internet may actually be changing how our brains work. Too much hypertext and multimedia content has been linked in some kids to limited attention span, lower comprehension, poor focus, greater risk for depression and diminished long-term memory.

Our new world of digital immersion and multitasking has affected virtually everything from our thought processes and work habits to our capacity for linear thinking and how we feel about ourselves, our friends and even strangers. And it has all happened virtually overnight.

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It goes without saying that digital media have also altered our fundamental notions of and respect for privacy. Young people now routinely post and share private, personal information and opinions on social media platforms without fully considering the potential consequences.

The immediacy of social media platforms, coupled with vulnerable youngsters who are socially inexperienced and not fully developed emotionally, can create a combustible mix. Kids often self-reveal before they reflect, and millions of kids say and do things they later regret. The permanence of what anyone posts online and the absence of an "eraser" button mean that the embarrassment and potential damage can last forever.

We urgently need a public conversation in our country among key stakeholders: parents, educators, technology innovators, policymakers and young people themselves. The dialogue must focus on the ways social media and technology enable our kids to give up their privacy before they fully understand what privacy is and why it's important to all of us. We should also discuss how social media can help empower kids to find their voice, find their purpose and potentially create the next technology revolution.

All adults know that the teen years are a critical time for identity exploration and experimentation. Yet this important developmental phase can be dramatically twisted when that identity experimentation, however personal and private, appears permanently on one's digital record for all to see.

In the 1990s, as a reaction to an explosion of television programming of increasingly questionable quality for kids, Congress passed the Children's Television Act. There was universal recognition that given all the time kids were spending in front of the television, the nation had a collective responsibility to offer positive, educational programming with limited commercials. We are at, arguably, an even more important crossroads when it comes to digital media and technology.

Howard Gardner, a professor and researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who developed the concept of multiple intelligences, calls kids' use of digital media and technology "epochal change." He compares the revolution in digital media to the invention of the printing press because of its extraordinary impact on the way we communicate, share information and interact with one another. As a society, we have no choice but to engage with this new reality and work to ensure that it affects our kids in healthy, responsible ways.

The promise of digital media to transform our lives in positive ways is enormous. If managed well, technology can improve our schools and education, deepen social connectedness, expand civic engagement and even help advance our democracy. But for these positive outcomes to occur, we as a society must confront the challenges endemic in our 24/7 digital world.

We need legislation, educational efforts and norms that reflect 21st-century realities to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks for our kids. Only then will we be able to give them the safe, healthy childhood and adolescence they deserve.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chelsea Clinton and James Steyer.

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