So, should parents embrace technology or fight it? As a parenting expert who has specialized in working with Gen Y (13-32-year-olds) for the last 17 years, this is one of the most common questions I'm asked when speaking at various parenting conferences across the country. So, what is the number one rule for all parents? Teach our kids that technology is a privilege, not a right.
Overall, I'm a big fan of technology. It's an amazing tool that when used responsibility, allows families to connect more efficiently and more often. I recently spoke to 500 high school students and one teen says he tweets with his grandpa -- his mentor -- everyday! I don't think it should totally replace face-to-face communication; this is a skill that I recommend parents ensure they still teach their kids. The key is teaching our kids (and we are their "technology teachers") that even though "all their friends" (as they see it) may have this gift of social media, it doesn't change the fact that technology is a privilege. I love using metaphors, and I often find that comparing technology to driving is a great illustration of this principle for kids.
Driving a car is a privilege, not an automatic right. We need to be a certain age, be properly trained and follow the "rules of the road," or that privilege will be taken away. The difference here is that with driving, there is a test (written and road), a training manual, strict rules and speed limits that are all established for us. With technology, the 'rules' are left to the parents to decide and teach. It's unfair for parents to assume that kids know what the rules are if we are not clearly telling them in advance (they can't read our minds). Parents also need to explain to their kids what the consequences will be if they step outside those limits!
So let's keep it simple. Aside from this #1 rule, what are some other guidelines that kids need to follow to keep this privilege? Here are my top three:
Tip #1: Use It Only for Positive or Neutral Comments
While I love technology as communication tool, I strongly believe that it should only be used for positive or neutral comments. Discussing or criticizing others with the intent to harm them (i.e., cyberbullying) should be a zero-tolerance item. In addition, if people have a disagreement, technology is not the best tool to use when trying to resolve it, because it limits our use of non-verbal cues and body language, major aspects of communication! This often results in posted comments being misunderstood or misinterpreted. For resolving disagreements, I still recommend only face-to-face communication.
Tip #2: Talk Only To Those You Know
Most of us already know this tip, but it is a critical one from a safety perspective. Teach your kids that they should only connect online with people that they already know. This one just makes sense, and it also encourages our kids to use technology as a tool to enhance current communication instead of being the only form of communication they have with others.
Tip #3: Do Random Check-Ups
While some parents may "snoop" or "read" their kids social media without permission (which can impact their trust levels), I recommend that parents let their kids know in advance that occasionally you will be reading their tweets, Facebook posts etc. This way, you are being honest with what you are doing (extremely important in a healthy parenting relationship) while making sure your kids are staying within the guidelines. I compare it to driving and speeding. We all know what the speed limits are (or least we ought to), but knowing that the police may show up at any time on the road helps to make sure we are staying within those boundaries. Knowing that these random check-ins may happen at any time will help our kids in their decision-making!
Recently, I went for lunch with my best friend from high school, who has now started a social media business helping small companies to embrace technology. A parent of two teens, she shared with me how she established a one-year training period for her daughters. She let them know that she would be regularly reading their posts to make sure they were appropriate (following my two tips). She was also very clear that if they stepped outside of their boundaries, they would lose the privilege for one week.
I find teens extremely reasonable when we are clear with our expectations and any consequences. The key is that we need to teach our kids HOW to use this tool. And if they are being responsible with it -- let's reward them!