When a group of teens were asked recently how much their parents know about what they get up to online, or what social media they’re even using, more than a quarter of them responded with “a little” or “nothing”.
And although many parents are across Facebook and Instagram, many have never used more youth-focused channels such as Snapchat, Musical.ly or Tbh.
Expert on digital exposure of teens Ana Homayoun recently wrote for the Washington Post that she asked teens what secrets they wish their parents knew about their online use, but don’t necessarily want to tell them. They shared three:
- When parents take away devices at night, they often don’t realise there are others their teen can access. Taking away an iPad is ineffectual if your teen also has access to a smart phone, for instance. And their FOMO (fear of missing out) can make them anxious to stay connected if there’s a discussion going on they want to be a part of. It can be useful to get your teen’s buy-in on limiting device time by encouraging them to reflect on the impact their online habits have on their personal and academic goals.
- Many teens have fake social media accounts to show their parents. We can control our children’s social media usage as closely as we like, but it’s entirely ineffective if they’ve got secret accounts we don’t know about. That’s why you’re better off acting as a mentor rather than a gate keeper. Having open-ended discussions with your teens helps them to build a critical eye and think about what they’re doing for themselves, and start to make smarter decisions about their interactions.
- If teens are passionate or angry, they will share it on social media. As adults who didn’t grow up with social media, most of us censor our feelings and think hard about what we want to share online. But teens want their opinions to be heard, and the internet is the best and fastest way to amplify their voice. It can also give them immediate satisfaction and validation in the guise of responses from friends and strangers. Of course, teens’ brains are still developing and their impulse control and ability to understand long-term consequences of all that sharing isn’t quite there yet. Parents who can empathise with their children and offer them a safe place to express themselves may help their teens to develop a more measured approach.
Ana Homayoun said teens also told her what they’d like their parents to do:
- Talk with them about the apps they like to use and why. It’s only when parents understand what their teens are using and how they’re using it that they can offer support and understanding. You can learn about each app by joining and downloading, then using it yourself. You don’t need to stalk your child online, but rather get a feel for how things work so you understand what can happen.
- Help your teen keep an eye on who is following them. Teens can be pretty open about who they let follow them or send friend requests, and when friends and followers can equal popularity, teenagers can find it hard to turn away the prospect of more. Parents can encourage their children to more carefully curate access to their profiles by asking question and perhaps pointing out potential dangers.
- Accept that social media isn’t all bad. Social media is neither good nor bad, it’s merely a form of communication. It’s here to stay and trying to ban it or pretend it doesn’t exist can only lead to problems. If a parent expresses genuine curiosity and compassion about what their kids are up to online, and what they’re gaining from the experience, they can set themselves up for more positive and open relationship, where teens can share their concerns and happy moments.
- Talk about sexting and healthy relationships in a way that isn’t awkward. Is that even possible? Of course, everyone should be free to share pictures of themselves with a trusted person without the fear that they will fall into the wrong hands, but in the real world it happens all the time. While you can’t stop your teen from making that choice, you can talk to them about healthy relationships and ensuring they only do what they’re comfortable with.
Ensuring our teens make healthy choices online means we need to adapt to the constant changes to the way they communicate with each other. They will be on social media whether we like it or not, and it’s our choice whether we go along for the ride with our eyes and ears open, or if we stick our heads in the sand.