A recent survey by Commonsense Media found that about half of teenagers feel addicted to their cellphones, and even more of their parents agree.
But it’s not just mobile devices. The sheer number and variety of ways to communicate and share digitally are both vexing and sobering for parents, particularly if they have tweens and teens. And parents are rightly concerned about the possibilities of missteps in the internet age: embarrassing messages and posts kept alive forever, predators and identity thieves, even the threat of criminal prosecution for youthful mistakes.
Our children are comfortable exploring the new digital world. And unlike other aspects of a kid’s developmental trajectory, the challenges of the digital age aren’t something that parents today necessarily had to navigate in their adolescence.
This leads to a lot of confusion, and I am often consulted on the best way to deal with challenging situations involving the internet and social media. My first and most important suggestion is this: if you think something is alarming, slow down, step back, and try to understand the context. The internet isn’t going away, and our children need to learn to live with it safely and healthily. Compromise and cooperation are the key words here.
A parent might notice, for example, that their teenager spends a lot of time messaging with friends, including frequent use of aggressive or insulting language toward others. Another might discover pictures on their teen’s phone of them in their underwear or in suggestive poses. Or a parent who shares a tablet with their teen notices that the internet history includes searches related to sexual content or pornographic websites.
It’s normal for these kinds of situations to lead to a high level of concern for parents. But we want to try to avoid angry confrontations or extreme punishments (like trying to limit the teen’s access to technology/social media for months or years) if we can help it. That’s because young people need to learn how to navigate the online world so they can reap the benefits and avoid or address the above scenarios on their own in the future. And it’s good to have a helpful, understanding parent in their corner while they learn—not caregivers they are trying to outfox.
It’s helpful to realize that the situations outlined above are often ones that teens themselves are confused about how to navigate, especially with the pressures that come with adolescence. For all the media attention to the negative influences of the internet and social media, research shows that most kids are using technology for the same reasons that adults are. They want to make new social connections, maintain high-quality relationships with friends and family members, and have access to information or interactions with others who share their interests.
However, they can still be eager, sometimes impulsive teenagers, easily led into making mistakes. While it’s undeniable that problematic and addictive media use is a reality, many of the issues that alarm parents and cause them to confront their teenagers may be more similar to real world challenges that teens face rather than symptoms of a new media apocalypse. Just as with drugs, alcohol and sexual activity, the digital world offers pitfalls teens have to learn to avoid. We do well to develop relationships so that we can teach teens how to navigate these challenges, rather than reacting angrily or hoping we can completely shelter them from the digital world.
So, what can parents do before the punitive spirit takes hold, ultimately helping their teens and the parent-child relationship?
- Keep your cool. If you find something troubling, approach it in a nonjudgmental way, and remember that your teen might be struggling with it as well.
- Listen. Have a frank and open conversation with your teen about what you find. Try to avoid making assumptions about your teen’s motivations or bringing up past negative behaviors. Really attempt to understand the factors and pressures involved in your teen’s decision-making process.
- Place limits… It’s absolutely appropriate to place limits on a pre-teen or teen’s access to social media and to ensure that you can monitor their activity — even before you find anything concerning! Common limits include limiting screen-time on weekends, avoiding “friending” strangers, and making sure that teens have appropriate privacy settings on all their accounts.
- …But give them space. Everyone is eventually going to have to learn how to use the internet and social media appropriately — even you! Taking away a teen’s access for very extended periods of time is not realistic or helpful in the long run. Either they will find another, often unmonitored way to access social media, or you lose the opportunity to guide them.
- Be a digital “neighbor.” Before any issues come up, make sure to familiarize yourself with you teen’s digital world. Know where your teen is going online; pay attention to descriptions of online activities and interactions (even if you find it uninteresting). And let them have fun teaching you about these things.
- Put your expectations in writing. When you do find something that concerns you, and after you’ve tried to talk, focus on setting up a behavioral contract. Be very specific about what behaviors you expect in order for the teen to retain their access, and create a plan to practice these behaviors and to have check-ins frequently.
- Be open and accessible. Teens learn best if parents can model and frankly discuss the behaviors they expect, even if they’re linked to subjects parents might wish to avoid discussing—like sex or pornography. When parents can keep their cool and address challenging situations together with their teen, they provide opportunities for their teen to see them as a source of support.
- Know when you need help. Parents and teens seek help and support from therapists for all kinds of reasons, and many issues don’t require an extended course of therapy. Sometimes parents don’t feel comfortable with certain conversations, need guidance in crafting a script or contract, or just want to develop better communication or problem-solving strategies. And while a certain amount of parent-teen conflict is normal, frequent and intense arguments can easily take quite a toll on family members’ mental health. There may not be an app for it yet, but parents and teens are not alone with these challenges. So if the struggle is too bitter, seek professional help.