Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pediatricians on board with social media concerns

Last month's Pediatric News featured a story on pediatricians' perspectives on social media. Parents are increasingly confused and overwhelmed by Twitter, Facebook, texting, Foursquare, etc etc. Many do not know what these terms mean, much less how to access them or understand the safety concerns for their children. Many parents have already given up and it's just the beginning of this revolution.

One Washington-based pediatrician is quoted as saying that the arena of social media is "the world's largest cocktail party." With 74% of kids in grades 7-12 reporting they have a profile on a social networking site such as Facebook, it's one heck of a party out there.

So it's no surprise that pediatricians worry about the short term effects as well as the long term effect on our brains. Dr Susan Greenfield from the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford Martin School, Oxford, England says:
"It's a given that it will affect the brain, because the human brain adapts to whatever environment it's placed in. If you're in an environment as different as the cyberworld is from the real world, I don't think there is any question that we'll adapt to it. The big question is, How will we adapt to it? Is it good or bad? What can we do about it?"

Dr Michael Rich of Boston Children's Center on Media and Child Health hosts a blog called "Ask the Mediatrician" on parental concerns over media and health. "Social media," he says, "fundamentally alter how we interact with other people. There is as much an upside to social media use as there are cautionary tales. Social media can be particularly empowering for kids who are marginalized or minority groups of any kind. It is a wonderful environment for connecting with 'people like me.'"

Closer to home, I have started to work hard on ways to help parents frame these issues in the same way they have evolved rules and mores around driving, alcohol and other high risk behaviors. Working in conjunction with Gerald Stern of WOW Production Services we have developed an efficient, accessible and inexpensive class that parents can attend to bring them quickly up to speed. Sitting at a computer terminal, they sign on to a Facebook page if they don't have one and in under two hours they learn to navigate all the privacy settings and learn to understand the amazing appeal it has for our children. They also begin to understand ways to make social media work for them and their family.

It's truly a WOW/AHA experience. If you and some friends wish to organize such an evening, please contact me or Gerald.

image by via GoogleImages

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Great Website on Sexuality for Teens

Through my professional organization SAHM (Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine) I rediscovered a wonderful website today.  It's called Scarleteen and can be explored here.

One of the most widely visited websites for people from 15-25, Scarleteen has been recognized by all the big whigs: SIECUS, UNICEF, Planned Parenthood, The Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, Family Health International, Advocates for Youth, the International Association for Adolescent Health, The Boston Women's Health Collective, The Society for the Scientific Study of name a few.   That means that your parents, teachers, clergy, doctors, and friends will hopefully recognize that this is a really good, reliable safe place to get answers to all those questions that need private, authoritative and comprehensible answers.

To test it out I asked "the website" about a problem that I saw in my office recently.  Namely, what to do about the ingrown hairs and irritation that results from shaving pubic hair.   After many enlightening paragraphs about the physical risks (low but real) and the nuisance factor (once you start shaving,,,,,) the blog got down to the issue of "who or what is really making you want to remove your pubic hair in the first place?"  Here is some of the advice (italics mine):
Just like the hair on our heads, if you want to try shaving it, it's not like you have to commit to doing that from here on out. You can always try it and see how and if it works for you, and how you feel about it. If you find you like it, then you can stick with it for as long as you like. If you find you don't, you can ditch messing with that hair entirely or try something else, like trimming or waxing. I'd just encourage you to make these choices, like any with your appearance, based on what you want and what feels like the most authentic expression of who you are, rather than what someone else wants you to look like or who someone else wants you to be.
Once you or anyone in your family logs on I think you will be tempted to buy their book S.E.X. by Heather Corinna (2007)which covers everything from STIs to sexual orientation, to co-habitation, to clitoris, to penis length, to misogyny, rape, orgasm and more and more.  Endorsed by big names in sex ed for teens,  I know I want this book on my own bookshelf and will refer patients often for reliable, relatable information. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Support New York's Deaf Students

Since I moved my practice to White Plains, I have reached out to a few of my neighbors.  This has included Whole Foods and The Westchester, but also some of my medical colleagues who line Westchester Avenue.   Down the road a piece is The New York School for the Deaf in White Plains, called Fanwood.

When I visited I was enchanted by the small museum they have of various implements and instruments used over the years as hearing aids for hearing impaired people. In addition I was charmed by the beautiful grounds, the lovely people and the enthusiasm of the students and the staff, including the dynamic new executive director, Dr Janet Dickinson.   

Here is some information from the website of the NewYork School for the Deaf also known in White Plains as Fanwood:

Chartered in 1817, the New York School for the Deaf is the second oldest school for the deaf in the United States and the oldest in New York State.  Originally located in New York City in the Almshouse behind City Hall, the school moved uptown in 1829 to a ten-acre parcel of land between present day Saks’ Fifth Avenue and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The school moved again in 1856, after purchasing a 37.5-acre wooded estate on the bank of the Hudson River, near the current location of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The school adopted the name of this estate, Fanwood, as its nickname, one that has followed the school to its current location.     
In the late 1890s, Fanwood adopted a military curriculum to instill discipline and provide a more structured learning environment for students. The school was the first in the nation to do so and was also the first school for the deaf to form a military band. For the next 50 years, precise military drills in tight formations were a daily occurrence on the Fanwood parade grounds.
After spending 80 years in Upper Manhattan, the school purchased a 77-acre apple farm on Knollwood Road near White Plains in 1934.  In 1952, the school dropped its military program and become a coeducational institution again.

Since 1977, Fanwood has practiced a total communication approach to learning – which challenges students to develop their linguistic ability in a number of areas, oral and written English in addition to American Sign Language.

Fanwood has also fully recognized the benefits of using technology to help deaf children function in the world of the hearing. The TTY phones and closed caption TVs of the 1970s have given way to video phones, smart boards and computer learning aids.

In addition, all students are now assigned MacBooks as part of the Apple 1:1 program for use in the classroom and, for high school students, to use at home as well.

2007… School celebrates 190th year of providing educational services to deaf and hard-of-hearing students
As the New York School for the Deaf approaches its 200th anniversary, Fanwood will continue to build upon its heritage of combining individualized instruction for students with the latest innovations in education for deaf students.  

Click here for a wonderful three minute video of the director and students talking about their school. There are over 185 students there now from many towns, counties and school districts.
BUT NOW THIS amazing history and institution may be threatened by Governor Cuomo's budget plans. 

If you take a look here, you will see that the precious status of the NYSD is being threatened as NY State moves to pull back its funding of this and other schools as an approved private school rather than a state funded private school.  As I understand it, this proposal would ask local districts to fund the education for their deaf and hearing impaired students since the state funding would be missing.   Since we all know local districts themselves are hurting, the fear is that local schools would not be amenable to paying for the special needs of these students and keep them in an integrated, "inclusive" setting. 

Many professionals and experts in education for the deaf, including the new director, Dr Janet Dickinson, believe in the value of evaluation and education for deaf students in a specific environment where deaf students are taught strong communication skills in a lively communicative environment, are not a minority and socialize with like students in full  view of mentors and role models (older students and faculty) who have similar disabilities, abilities, struggles and achievements.

For a letter to Governor Cuomo from the Fanwood website, take a look here and send it on to Albany to defend this amazing school.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

New York Times Photographer Missing in Libya

Tyler Hicks photo from

With all of the overwhelming news and images flowing in from around the globe right now, one might not see that four New York Times journalists are missing in eastern Libya.   Included in them is Tyler Hicks, a brilliant and compassionate photographer whose photos from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Haiti can sear into your mind the way a thousand words never could.   Hicks marries art, politics, and sociology in a way that imprints humanity on our minds. Let's stay tuned and hope and work for his safety.

Tyler Hicks from

Monday, March 14, 2011

Earthquakes and Floods

As you know I have been in Haiti and I have seen collapsed buildings, amputations and stunned folks.  And recently I experienced the devastation of burst pipes that froze on my second floor and soaked my kitchen and living room with hot water for days on end, leaving ceilings collapsed, floors curling and a complete loss.

But when I look at the images from Japan where not only is there collapse but the final force of the tsunami, I am at another loss.  I remember when my son, Nick Taranto, went to Banda Ache, Indonesia shortly after the tsunami and described the landscape as if God had taken a spatula and just played with the mud, scraping whatever was in it from side to side, leaving a flattened mess beyond words.

Reach out to the Japanese in  your midst.  I did that today at the supermarket as I saw a young woman and her two year old waiting to pay.  Her English was rudimentary but we exchanged meaning.  We both wept gently as she told me she had lost no one and only said "oh, my country."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Do you have sex or plan to?

If so, then you might want to stand up for Planned Parenthood which is under siege and threat of cutbacks so severe that its very core is at risk. Watch this compelling video and pass it on. Made by students at Wesleyan University, it playfully reminds us that young Americans have sex and think about having sex and need Planned Parenthood:

What the video does not say explicitly is how Planned Parenthood can help everyone:
  • Women and men who rely on Planned Parenthood for contraception and family planning information -- PP helps avert about 612,000 unintended pregnancies every year.
  • Teens at risk of getting an STD-as many as 1 in 4 teenage girls already has one.
  • Teenage girls who are getting pregnant--724,000 do every year.
  • Women living in states that make it nearly impossible to get a safe and legal abortion.

Whenever I speak to groups of teens, I always take an informal poll to see how many of my young audience has been to Planned Parenthood. The response is always high whether they have accompanied a friend or visited themselves. Kids take it for granted that these competent, confidential and cost-effective services will exist. The way they take public education and garbage collection for granted as well. Let's try to keep it that way but let people know it all depends on our support.

Click here to donate quickly and effectively to Planned Parenthood. Let's stand up for our youth!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who's afraid of the Internet?

image from
If you are over 55, you are in the fastest growing group of Facebook users.  As an astute woman was heard to say recently, maybe that's because everyone younger is already on it.

As a parent and doctor who should know about what teens and young adults are up to, I have been making an effort to understand social media and how it impacts our lives. So I was pleased to read Adam Gopnik's article The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us in the New Yorker last month.  The article is essentially an ingenious book review of a dozen or so books about the joy, threat, fears, possibilities, and dangers of social media and  the Internet.

Gopnik divides the plethora of recent books about the phenomenon into three categories (color mine): them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

  Since the Internet is here to stay, there is not much point in endorsing the concept of going backwards as the Better-Nevers might.  And since there is very slim, if any, data to go on about the Never-Betters, it seems right to take some sort of middle ground. Gopnik's dissection of the Ever-Was-ers is the most interesting.  He asserts that most forms of media, from the book in the middle ages, to the twentieth century radio and the television and now the Internet have shocked the status quo and made people worry about the corruption of  minds and culture.  Even the novel was a target of concern in Jane Austen's day.  Here is another quote from Gopnik on the current romanticization of the television now that the computer, smartphone and Internet are the current whipping boys:
 Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the unplugged Sunday is a better idea than turning off the Internet completely, since it demonstrates that we can get along just fine without the screens, if only for a day.
So what is a parent to do?  How do we take this information and use it to our advantage as we struggle to raise our children to be healthy, resilient, productive and compassionate human beings.  I think we can extend the scary invention metaphor to the automobile and think about the frightening possibilities and the myriad ways we have grown and adjusted to its presence in our world.  From headlights, to seatbelts, to airbags, to cruise control and dashboard breathalizers, it's taken a century to learn about the risks and clear benefits of this technology.  Ingenious that we are, and unwilling to compromise the clear benefits of automated transportation, we have found our way.  And we will find our way with the Internet as well.

Meanwhile, we continue to educate ourselves and parent in the best ways possible, setting limits and offering an authoritative style to our offspring.  What we don't need to do is succumb to fear or relinquish all of our parenting skills to the technology.  TV dinner anyone?