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Anastasia Goodstein Headshot

Parents Tongue-Tied When It Comes To Talking With Teens

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For all of the trend reporting in the media that paints a picture of
Generation Y or the Millennials as being buddies with mom and dad, it
appears that when it comes to a key component of having a close
relationship to your teens, i.e. talking to them about important or
difficult issues, parents are still tongue tied. Today's parents may
inhabit the same popular culture as their kids, sharing a love of
Justin Timberlake or coveting the same hipster T-shirts as their
teens, but the emotional gap between them is actually widening -- in
large part due to technology.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) surveyed
parents
to find out if they were talking to their kids about
drugs. They're not. But what I found more interesting about the
results was that parents aren't talking about a lot of other subjects
as well:

"The survey shows that a majority of parents (57%) admit to having
some degree of difficulty in getting their teens involved in
meaningful conversations about their concerns, such as who their
friends are, how they dress, and how school is going. An even greater
number of parents (74%) have difficulty getting their teens to respond
to these concerns and are not sure their teens are even listening when
they do talk."

Parents have always struggled when it comes to talking to teenagers --
teens can be moody, uninterested, or like the brooding teenage son in
the indie flick "Little Miss Sunshine," be taking a vow of silence.
Add being in their room on the computer with the door locked or
texting during a family meal to the mix, and it becomes even more
difficult to break through. A parent told me just this morning that
she had to instant message her teen from home while he was in his
bedroom because he was so into his video game. Unlike this mom, a lot
of parents actually have no idea what kids are doing online or on
their cell phones, assume their kids just know more about that stuff
then they do, and so they are afraid to ask.

Then you have the parents who only know what they read in the headlines.

In the past year as I wrote href="http://www.totallywiredbook.com">Totally Wired, I literally
watched a moral panic spread around sites like MySpace and Xanga. The
fear of predators or "stranger danger" has fueled countless news
stories in the media, the reality series (it's more entertainment than
news to me) "To Catch a Predator" on Dateline, and a stable of police
officers and other Internet safety experts who are speaking at schools
scaring the crap out of parents about what can happen to their kids
online. The Internet is once again being cast as a big, scary
dangerous place teeming with porn, drug pushers and child molesters.
And while all of this is online and easier for kids to access, the
reality is that violent crime in the United States has dropped by 38
percent since 1975. And that out of the 800,000 kids that are reported
missing each year by the Justice Department, only 150 cases involve
"stereotypical kidnappings," in which a child is taken by a stranger,
held for ransom, or killed. I'm not denying that some bad stuff is
happening on some of these sites (just like bad stuff happens in real
life), but the real drama tends to happen at a much higher rate
between peers online (fighting, bullying, or just gossip) and not with
strangers.

The result of this media frenzy is that now you have parents who are
still largely "Internet illiterate" in terms of how their teens
actually use all of this technology, and who are so freaked out, that
many are overreacting out of the very legitimate desire to keep their
children safe. I've heard lots of stories of parents forcing teens to
remove their profiles without ever having seen them and some are even
pulling the plug on the Internet at home all together.

But the way to begin to close this gap is really the crux of that
White House press release -- not the scary parts that suggest parents
should put their children under surveillance or rifle through their
stuff. But just talking to teens in general. They may know more than
their parents about technology, but parents still know more than them
about life. Parents know what their values are about drugs or porn or
how people should be treated -- online or off.

I think parents should ask their teens to teach them how the
technology works, set up a MySpace profile, see how teens actually use
technology (mostly to stay connected to their friends or for
entertainment), and then ask them if they're being safe online, if
their profile is public or private (just for their friends), if
they're checking out porn, if they are posting too much info or risqué
photos, if they know that college admissions officers or employers can
Google them. Ask them if they've ever been harassed online or been
caught posting something nasty about someone else. If they have done
any of this, these are all opportunities for parents to jump in and
share their perspective on these issues. Parents will quickly realize
that teens' digital lives are not so different from real life, with
all of the messiness that comes with it. My hope is that parents won't
give in the culture of fear that has developed around the Internet --
but that they will face the challenges it presents head on and start
talking.

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