Kids and Cyber-safety: Q&A with Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, Part III

O'Keeffe talks about the role of the pediatrician in addressing online activities, and how they can learn more about topics like cyberbullying and sexting.

In this three-part series, HCPLive spoke with Gwenn O’Keeffe, MD, FACP—author of CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media—about the recommendations and tips the book offers for both parents and pediatricians, and the importance of understanding the importance of technology in today’s world. The book covers a wide range of topics, from helping children deal with cyberbullying to using control systems to monitor online activities, and is designed to help “steer parents through the often intimidating digital landscape where young children can be plugged in 24/7.” In addition to her work as a pediatrician, CEO of Pediatrics Now, and a blogger for MDNG: Pediatrics, O'Keeffe is also a fellow and national spokeswoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and an executive committee member of the AAP’s Council of Communications and Media—and a mother to two children.

Read Part I and Part II of the interview

I’m on the executive committee of the Council of Communications and Media for the AAP, and this is something we advocate. And we’ve found that the media-oriented pediatricians will bring this up.

The problem is that there are two types of pediatricians—the ones who buy into this and who do it, and the ones who are just unsure of how to do it. Either they don’t get the technology, or they just don’t feel that they have the time to add it in, or they don’t see the need.

So we have some more work to do. When I was doing a book signing, one of the things I noticed was (that) a lot of people were grabbing the book—not just to read it, but to get copies for their patients and themselves; that they felt they had a digital divide of their own personal technologies. So I think that the book is going to have some interesting uses, not just for parents, but for pediatricians, so they can figure out the online worlds of their patients.

What do physicians need to know about cyberbullying and sexting, and how can they get better educated on these topics?

The AAP has a Council of Communications and Media that focuses on these issues, but there are only a few of us, and of that council, the interests of the group are very diverse. I try to get to as many places as I can to talk about all the health issues with sexting and cyberbullying, but it’s hard to cover so much ground. I believe that if all the pediatricians got just a little bit savvier on the issues, that they could do that in their communities too.

The thing with cyberbullying is that it’s really an extension of bullying. If physicians could learn a little bit about the technology, they could be very powerful resources within their own communities.

Sexting is a little bit more complicated, but not that much; you just need to take a step back and realize that you can consult some smart legal people in your community and just understand some of the technology. We’re hoping to help on the AAP side by producing some resources for pediatricians that will hopefully guide them with what they have to understand. But they have to take an interest too.

This book can give pediatricians a birds-eye view to helping parents to parent better. It’s kind of like adopting EMRs; they just have to realize all of this technology isn’t going anywhere.

And finally, what takeaway points would you offer to parents whose children are becoming curious about technologies such as the Internet and cell phones?

You don’t want to overexpose your kids to television, but you need to expose kids to pop culture a little bit, because that is our world, and they need to be able to function in our world. If you shelter them too much, then they’re not going to be able to function well as thriving adults. We live in a technology-oriented world, so our kids need to understand how to mitigate their diets of technology, just as you want them to learn to eat food appropriately and not become gluttons on sugar. Technology is the same way; so for kids that don’t know how to limit themselves with cell phones and TVs and computers, when they get out on their own, they’re going to go crazy and really overuse it.

I think parents need to understand that too; that you can put all of these artificial limits on technology and say, no my kid won’t watch TV or my kid will never use computers, but that’s just the fear talking. It doesn’t help them become competent members of a technologically-oriented society and help them become good digital citizens, which should be our ultimate focus.

So that’s my hope—that we help kids become good digital citizens. And to do that, we have to become good digital citizens ourselves, which means learning the technology and being there with our kids so that they can make good decisions.

Be sure to read O’Keeffe’s column, “Social Media Notebook,” in the latest issue of MDNG: Pediatrics. For more information about the book, CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media, click here.