Ask young patients about social media use

Family Medicine_11.14.2013ORLANDO – Half of the teens who made comments on social media about their feelings and caused concern among those who saw the comments were brought to the hospital for assessment, according to a small survey of adolescents admitted to the child and adolescent psychiatry unit of Ohio State University Harding Hospital, Columbus.

Tragic suicides or homicides after social media use have gained national attention in recent years, but studies like this highlight the flip side of social media platforms: They can make it easier to find out when teens are in distress and help them access timely treatment and support.

The fact that these teens turned to social media to express emotional stress, “shows that [they] are having trouble conveying emotions to parents, counselors, or friends, so they’re finding a different avenue,” said Dr. Sathyan Gurumurthy, who presented the unpublished study at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “So, as professionals, we have to gain a better understanding of how they convey emotions.”

And given the generalized use of social media today, it is important for clinicians to ask children and adolescents about social media use during initial assessment, advised Dr. Gurumurthy, a resident physician at OSU’s Wexner Medical Center. “Talk to them about social media: how they use it and what sites they’re using,” he said in an interview.

The results of the yearlong study are based on the 6-month data from an eight-question survey. Researchers were able to collect 32% of the surveys that were handed out to teens and their families at the time of admission.

Of the 82 patients who completed the survey, 54 (66%) said they had made a comment on social media about their emotional disturbance. Of those patients, 32 (60%) said their comments caused a concern, and 16 of those patients (50%) were brought to the hospital for assessment because of their comments.

Seventy-three teens were hospitalized for suicidal ideation; and they had confided mostly in friends, parents, or counselors (around 25 each). Six of the patients said that they had confided in an “Internet friend.”

Half of these teens also said they preferred to communicate their suicidal thoughts in person, while 15% said they preferred social sites, and 9% preferred texts. Of the social sites, Facebook was the most popular (41%) among teens.

Of note was that only 25% circled “parent” as the person aware of their social media comments, said Dr. Gurumurthy.

“Many parents have minimal monitoring of their kids’ social media, and they have to be more involved in social media,” he advised.

Dr. Gurumurthy said the group is still gathering data and hopes to increase the number of survey respondents. He said future studies gathering social media use data from outpatient and emergency department visits could reveal other possible correlations.


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