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Social Media and Cyberbullying

A little over a month ago, I published my practice’s revised vaccination policy, along with the thought processes that guided said policy. I had watched as a once-controlled illness voyaged across continents, gaining footholds in communities that demonized generations of evidence-based medical practices. I was witnessing a war on one of our greatest medical protectors. And rather than apologetically allude to our position, I chose to take a stance and publicize what I feel is in the best interest of our patients.

I recognized the controversy surrounding my post. But the ferocious hostility and vicious contempt it unleashed took me by surprise. Hundreds of comments followed. I was labeled a “MURDERER!” I was accused of accepting financial incentives from pharmaceutical companies (trust me, there aren’t any); of being part of conspiracies to profit at the cost of innocent lives (I like to think I’m in the business of SAVING lives); of funding my fancy Mercedes (which happens to be a Toyota, but no one asked) with lavish insurance payments. My personal favorite [sic] was when someone called me: “Dr. Kike Mike.”

And the list went on…And on…And on…For days. Individuals tagged friends, who tagged their friends. I had roused a sleeping giant and I was lunch!

I wish I could tell you I didn’t read the comments; that I didn’t dissect every study my new “followers” referenced; that I didn’t search for possible evidence that I had missed in the case against vaccines (turns out, I hadn’t). I spent hours analyzing research and data; studying genetic conditions and lawsuits filed against pharmaceutical companies (No A-HA moments there). I wish I could tell you that my newly declared opposition and their comments didn’t bother me. But they did.

And that got me thinking. I am a stable, educated, and experienced professional. I am a grown man - a husband and father - with an established value system and self-esteem. Yet I was still exposed to the effects of cyberbullying. I was distressed by the cutting criticisms and cruel accusations. I had been bullied!

How can we expect our children – our adolescents who by definition are NOT stable; who haven’t yet developed their sense of self; who are transitioning from youth to adulthood – to have the strength to withstand the counter-influences and cruelty that can be triggered on social media?

How can we raise our children to have the courage to stand up for what they believe in; for what they value as right, when we know they risk rousing a merciless resistance and exposing themselves to deliberate cruelty?

Social media plays an intense and undeniable role in building today’s friendships, communities and identities. Do we, as parents, really understand its role in our children’s lives? Have we prepared them to understand the risks of engagement? Are we equipped to protect them from potential harm?

Adolescent mental health is so fragile and so vulnerable. Does social media help adolescents find support and validation? Or does it expose them to excessive risks of bullying and isolation?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the magic bullet. I have spent the last month researching social media and cyberbullying and their effects on adolescent mental health. As a primary care pediatrician, I recognize my responsibility in helping families navigate these challenges, and, over the coming weeks, I will be sharing some of my findings with you. This is our new reality. And as we work together to understand this reality, we will be sharing ways to lay the foundation for a healthy and happy life within it.

In the meanwhile, we can continue to remind ourselves and our children of my wife’s favorite adage: Be Kind. Always.

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