By Gene Roehlkepartain, Ph.D.
Vice President, Research and Development
In the past, moms, dads, and other parenting adults could focus on ensuring that kids were spending their time in safe, healthy, and supportive places in their homes and neighborhoods.
But today’s young people live in a world where digital media—websites, social media, cell phones, video games, and others—are parts of everyday life. This reality opens up new challenges and opportunities for parents, teens, and families. Like all parts of life, online environments have both benefits and risks:
- Socialization and communication
- Enhanced learning opportunities
- Useful health information
- Self-expression and creativity
- Cross-cultural communication
- Involvement in civic issues and causes
- Cyberbullying and harassment, usually by peers
- Sharing sexually explicit photographs
- Inaccurate or harmful health information
- Exposure to inappropriate and illegal content
- Sharing too much information
- Inappropriate commercial or sexual solicitations
Cultivate a warm, open relationship. Having a close family and a positive relationship with parents reduces the likelihood that teens will engage in harmful online activities.
- Learn more about what your child is doing online. Teens typically use social networking sites, instant messaging, and text messages to connect with offline friends, and they use a variety of websites for homework or to explore personal interests. At the same time, they may be accessing (either accidentally or intentionally) inappropriate content such as violent online games, sexually explicit sites, online gambling, R-rated movies, and explicit music. In addition, teens may be visiting sites that promote unhealthy behaviors, such as pro-anorexia sites. Asking explicit, non-judgmental questions about what your teen is finding online can help to identify areas where you might be concerned so that you can respond appropriately.
Model responsible technology use. This includes setting limits on accessing texts and other technology during family times, avoiding texting and driving, asking critical questions about information you find online, and treating others with respect in social media and texting. (Many young people now complain that their parents are so distracted by their technology that the kids can’t get their undivided attention.)
Address ethical and legal issues. The Internet can sometimes make it easy blur the lines about honesty and integrity. It’s easy to plagiarize (use someone else’s writing or ideas as your own), or to download or share pirated music, videos, and computer programs through file-sharing sites. In addition to the ethical issues, some of these activities can catch the attention of the rightful copyright holders, with serious consequences.
- Talk about what to post—and not post—online. In addition to discussing the importance of not sharing private information (such as age, location, school, and phone number), talk about the kind of information, language, and images they might post that could be embarrassing or hurtful to themselves or to others.
Have an exit strategy. If teens ever feel threatened online by a bullying friend or a predatory adult, what should they do? Talk about this in advance so they have options in mind if there should ever be a need. For example, they can end the interaction immediately and block the person. Insist that they tell you or another parenting adult if they have any concerns about someone they meet online or about any of the activities they are encountering, such as bullying or sexting. If the person keeps trying to contact the teen or continues with threatening behaviors, the situation should be reported to the police or other appropriate authorities.
Share in decision making about online limits and rules. It is important to have clear expectations about what is and isn’t appropriate online based on your family’s priorities and values. Youth are most likely to see these rules as fair and then follow them if they are part of the decision-making process.
Adjust cell phone use. Phone calls and texts between parents and kids is a great way to stay in touch and help people feel connected to each other. However, researchers find that cell phone interactions bring parents and kids together when kids initiate most of the calls seeking parents’ advice or support. Conflict is more common when parents mostly call to track activities or homework or when they are upset. Conversations involving conflict are more likely to be constructive when in person.
Empower your child to navigate the digital world. Educate your children so they learn to navigate digital worlds safely and are equipped with strategies to adopt when they do encounter challenges.
Use technology together to expand possibilities in your life. Discover new video games you can enjoy playing together. Explore different parts of the world, different cultures, and different ideas online. Learn about your family heritage and genealogy through online sources. Use online resources to tell your family’s story through videos or pictures.
Participate in social action online together. Work with your teen to navigate the internet to learn about important social issues and gaining different perspectives on complex global issues. Find opportunities to contribute, volunteer, or take a stand on issues that matter to your family. In the process, learn together about how to think critically about the information being shared about an issue: Are the sources reliable? Is it consistent with positive values that are priorities for your family? Does it treat alternate perspectives respectfully?
Remember that researchers see strong links between online and offline behavior. Teens who are most vulnerable to risky behaviors online tend to be the same teenagers who have difficulty in other parts of their lives. The skills, values, and attitudes you cultivate in your family will help to guide them in their online activities.
Internet Safety Technical Task Force (2008). Enhancing child safety & online technologies: Final report of the internet safety technical task force to the multi-state working group on social networking of State Attorneys General of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
O’Keeffe, G. S., Clarke-Pearson, K., and Council on Communications and Media (2011). The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families. Pediatrics, 127(4), 800-804.
Subrahmanyam, K, & Smahel, D. (2011). Digital Youth: The role of media in development. New York, NY: Springer.
Weisskirch, R. S. (2009). Parenting by cell phone: Parental monitoring of adolescents and family relations. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(8), 1123–39.
Weisskirch, R. S. (2010). No crossed wires: Cell phone communication in parent-adolescent relationships. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 14(7-8), 447–51.
Williams, A. L., & Merten, M. J. (2011). iFamily: Internet and social media technology in the family context. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 40(2), 150–170.