Raising digital teenagers is hard work especially when today’s parents did not grow up with the internet. As a school counselor and a mom, I often hear that this leaves parents feeling they are ill equipped to cross the bridge between their experiences and the digital childhood of their offspring. We live in an age of sexting, frightening online challenges, cyberbullying, and digital footprints which can follow middle schoolers to college. Less dramatic is the typical struggle over amount of screen time and how that time is spent. All of this leaves adults veering wildly between over-policing children or giving up supervision altogether. The question remains; how can we keep our kids educated and safe?
Risks for Digital Teenagers
Frightening headlines about internet activity driving children to self harm are all too common. At the heart of it, exchanges online can be similar to the playground arguments held by previous generations although unfortunately today’s exchanges are viewed by a large online audience. Students used to be able to leave school conflicts at school. Social media allows insults and conflicts to be seen by a child’s entire social circle making them unable to have respite. For example, a child’s argument in the lunchroom can be taken to social media and viewed by her entire out of school circle of friends as well as her grandparents in Michigan. Sadly, without face to face contact children can hurl insults without seeing the impact they have, which creates a lack of empathy. Adults and children alike are far more cruel when hidden behind a screen and do not realize the devastation caused.
Understanding Our Common Ground
The days of bus stop conversations and folded notes in class have been replaced with Snapchat and Instagram, texting and DMs (direct messaging). Decades ago, we would go to school on Monday and overhear talk of a weekend party we were not invited to; today’s children often watch these events unfold in real time on social media, which is potentially devastating. Parents can be quick to throw up their hands and believe that they cannot relate to the cyber experiences of children. However, all adults have experience with isolation, rejection, conflict, and other negative emotions.
When we treat our children as though we cannot relate to their experiences, they believe that we cannot relate to their emotions.
This is further isolating for children. Parents need to continually discuss the basic emotions and relationships children are experiencing. It is absolutely appropriate for parents to require access to their children’s social media and monitor interactions. In both online and face to face communication, adolescents need adult intervention and guidance in handling conflict resolution as well as teaching and modeling empathy. Parents should be ready to coach a child through appropriate responses to social media if they suspect cyber bullying or unhealthy dynamics at play especially if a child’s self worth appears to be reliant upon online activity. As a last resort, parents should be prepared to suspend online activity if they suspect it is impacting a child’s mental health.
What is The Magic Age?
Ultimately, there is no one size fits all age when children should gain access to social media or have restrictions removed from devices. It is equally impossible to determine which social media trend will be devastating to one student and harmless to another. While this can feel hopeless, all is not lost. Relationships remain at the heart of all parenting issues including those surrounding technology. Encouraging open communication, attempting to withhold quick judgements, and really knowing your child can help prevent technology misuse.
Here are a few things to consider when setting guidelines for your child:
1. Is your child emotionally mature enough to handle social media and/or unsupervised access to electronics? This can be compared to being left home alone. Some kids are mature enough to be left home alone at age twelve; others have to be constantly supervised well into their teens.
2. Do you have access to all of their devices? You are paying the bills, therefore, they have not earned a right to privacy. It is probably not necessary to spend hours searching through phones, but the knowledge that you might do so at any time can be a powerful deterrent.
3. How is communication between you and your child? Does your child talk to you about issues with friends or worries about school? Do you know who their friends are? Work to keep these lines open about the little things, and the big things will be easier for your child to broach.
4. As a rule, any electronic device (especially those with cameras) do not belong in bathrooms or behind closed doors. Set boundaries that help your child remove any temptation to take inappropriate pictures or spend time on questionable web sites. It is entirely reasonable to charge all electronic devices in the parent’s bedroom at night. This will also help your child get a good night’s sleep away from electronics!
5. Stay current, but don’t run yourself ragged trying to anticipate all of the trends. Have a good working knowledge of how to navigate electronics and what apps are popular among your child’s group of friends (again, communicate!). Read the occasional article about online trends, but do not lose sleep over the scary headlines.
Take a breath, trust your instincts, and keep talking to your child. Today’s kids will have an entirely different childhood than their parents, and that does not have to be a bad thing. We cannot protect our children from every danger, in the same way our parents could not shield us from all of life’s hurts and disappointments. By loving our kids hard and creating a safe and open home environment, we can give our digital teenagers a chance to thrive.