Online games, music, videos, written content, and various social media have reshaped the ways in which our pre-teens and teens interact with the world. In many ways, this is a scary prospect for parents, who did not grow up carrying a powerful computer in their pockets with the capacity to access (or send videos to) the entire world in seconds. While our initial inclination as parents may be to take technology away, we also know that there are many positives that come from technology and like it or not it is an integral part of daily life.
Controlling internet use can be more straightforward with younger children where limiting access to technology, blocking non-kid-friendly sites, and setting strict time limits are developmentally appropriate. Unfortunately, much of this changes in the pre-teen and teenage years. Adolescents want and need more independent access to technology than younger children for homework, recreation, and socialization—and severely limiting that can be harmful… but letting it be a free-for-all can be harmful as well. So what does a conscientious parent do?
The good news is that there are many ways that we can help our pre-teens and teens learn to be more safe, to avoid perils and to take advantage of positive, age-appropriate opportunities online. Some more good news is that the internet has a lot of great things to offer that will enrich our children’s lives and help them learn key skills for their future. So, how do we make sure that our pre-teens and teens navigate this seemingly limitless online world safely and productively? The answer is us, or more specifically, our relationships with our teens.
The number one thing that we can do to make sure our children are safe is to have conversations with them about their online activity on a regular basis. This engagement likely looks different than what you think. It is not the typical parental grilling: What are you doing? Who are you talking to? Show me everything! Followed by a lecture of why this or that is wrong. This approach often shuts down teens and pre-teens. It can have the negative effect of decreasing communication between parents and teens, which is the opposite of what we want.
Instead, we need to foster conversations that are genuinely focused on teens’ online interests and goals, while also setting developmentally appropriate limits on device types and usage time as well as having parental monitoring of use. This means actively engaging our children in the aspects of the internet that are nearest and dearest to them and may be completely foreign (or boring or trivial) to us as parents. This parent-teen dialog is a vital way to open doors and build bridges that ultimately keep them safe and help them make better choices online.
The purpose of engaging our youth about their online interests is not so parents can start SnapChatting. The purpose is to stay in a parental role while building a relationship that maximally facilitates our teens coming to us for guidance when they have a question or are in trouble. Rather than fearing that they will be punished, we want our kids to know that we are their allies. Developing a foundation built on a positive relationship about online matters will shift our kids’ perceptions from seeing parents as roadblocks to seeing parents as resources.
Exactly how is this done? This is a highly personal matter that differs from family to family and should be centered on your core values. To help support families in this conversation, we are offering seminars for parents and pre-teens/teens ages 12-17 at Chrysalis. Parents and pre-teens will have separate seminars to allow youth and parents to find support and guidance in safe spaces.
The purpose of the pre-teen/teen seminar is to open up the conversation and provide a supportive environment for youth to talk about the positive and negative aspects of being online—this will not be a lecture. It will be fun for your pre-teens and teens, while also providing valuable information. In the teen seminar, we will be asking questions to teens to better understand their online experience. A summary of this information will be shared with parents as a window into what teens and pre-teens are experiencing when they are online.
The parent seminar that follows the teen seminar will be an opportunity for parents to learn specific tools to open and develop the conversation about technology with teens and pre-teens. Parents will also be able to share their own experiences in a private setting as a way to learn what is most helpful and what to avoid. Following these seminars, opportunities will be available for individual family work to address specific needs, challenges or concerns, all with the goal of strengthening families and keeping our teens and pre-teens safe and healthy.
I look forward to seeing you there and starting the conversation! If you are interested you can call the Chrysalis main number 910-790-9500 for seminar dates and times and to sign up.
Dr. Kate Brody Nooner is a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at UNCW. She also holds an adjunct appointment at Duke University and is the principal investigator of NIH-funded grants aimed at reducing child and adolescent trauma and preventing alcoholism.