05/06/2013 07:48 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

It's Time to Be a Parent and Not a 'Secret Diary Reader': A Response to 'Cyberparenting and the Risk of T.M.I.'

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When I was a teenager, I remember that my sister, who is two years younger than I, kept a diary that she cleverly hid in her underwear drawer. Being a nosy older brother, and wanting to see if she wrote anything about me, I snuck into her room one day when the rest of the family was out (I was left home doing schoolwork as a punishment for the work I had failed to do the night before). Ostensibly locked, and with no key in sight, I jimmied open the diary -- which took all of a minute -- and, over the next hour, read every word she wrote. Turns out, the musings of a 14-year-old were pretty boring and to my chagrin, there was not a single mention of me.

I mention this ancient story because I read with interest a commentary by Pamela Paul in the New York Times the other day entitled, "Cyberparenting and the Risk of T.M.I." In general, I felt that Ms. Paul's piece was interesting in how it pointed out the issues ranging from becoming your child's Facebook friend to having your teen migrate to newer sites such as Snapchat, Instagram and Tumblr and keep you out of the loop. I was particularly interested in her thoughts about Karen Sanders, the 49-year-old mother of two, who mentioned that her 15-year-old daughter would keep changing her passwords, denying access to her mother.

I was most struck by one remark in the article: "Like most savvy parents, Ms. Sanders has installed parental controls on the family computers, but has found the phrase 'how to take parental controls off' in their search history." I actually had a good, hearty laugh at this, because this is a challenge that I give moms and dads when I speak with parent groups all over the world. I tell them that no matter what software they install on their child's computer, that child can -- and will -- find a "workaround" in under a minute. I have even had parents email me to tell me they watched their children do just that and were amazed and a bit chagrined that they had underestimated their child's own "savvy."

In a late 2012 Huffington Post article entitled "The TALK Model of Parenting High-Tech Children, Teens and Young Adults," I introduced a model of parenting that rests on two pillars: "T" for Trust and "K" for Communication (yes, I know that Communication starts with a "C," but TALC was not a great acronym, as it suggested baby powder). When I introduce the model in my talks, I make sure that parents realize that by installing monitoring software -- even if their son or daughter is aware of the software -- what you are saying is "I don't trust you to make the right choices." This is a parenting issue tantamount to teaching your children to avoid drugs or even to look both ways before crossing the street.

My suggestion is to be that unique parent that talks to your children about dangers and works with your child from a young age to build their trust. That way, when they are at a party and are offered drugs or when they receive a communication that makes them feel uncomfortable or even upset, they will talk to the person who spent time developing their trust: you, their parent.

Here are two simple suggestions for developing that trust:

  1. I always recommend that parents start to have weekly family discussions about technology use as soon as they allow their children to use a smartphone or to be on the Internet. This means that you start when you hand your 2-year-old an iPhone and allow her to play with an app or to email grandma and grandpa. The meetings must be short. When the kids are little, a meeting should last only a few minutes, and as they get older, the meeting might be as long as 15 minutes, but no longer, as that is pushing against a teenager's ability to attend and focus without his/her thoughts wandering back to their virtual social worlds and what they might be missing. The set-up is simple. Everyone sits on the floor, which removes some of the feeling of powerful, taller mom and dad hovering over tiny children or even preteens. Everyone turns his or her technology off and then mom or dad asks a question. When kids are young, it might be something like, "What is your favorite iPhone app and why do you like it?" or "What fun videos did you watch this week?" As the kids get older, the meetings expand and the questions turn to more feelings-based issues such as, "I heard about someone being bullied online. Do you know anyone that has been cyberbullied? What happened and how did they feel?" or "Have you ever seen images online that made you feel uncomfortable? Can you tell me what you felt?" The bottom line is that once the question has been asked, the parent's job is to sit quietly, with a neutral or positive expression and not say a word. This is the time to use your parental radar to really listen to your kids and assess any threats to their psyches.
  2. Weekly family dinners can be used for similar discussions. Again, technology needs to be turned off -- although a 1-2 minute tech break in the middle of dinner is advised to allow everyone to check in and reduce the anxiety they might be feeling about what they are missing out on in their virtual world -- and parents ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Research shows that four or more family meals a week help develop trust and a healthy family system which is how you get your children conditioned to talk to you when problems arise, which, trust me they will.

In a future post, I plan to discuss a new model that I have for parenting, or rather an addition to my TALK model. It involves being a GEEK, but not in the way that you might think. Stay tuned!

Addendum: By the way, my sister told me a few years ago that she knew I had looked at her diary as she saw the scratches on the lock and I didn't fool her by putting it back exactly in the position it was where I found it. If you, the parent, think you can fool your kids by peeking at their history while they sleep or checking their Google searches or installing background software, you are probably not fooling anyone, particularly not your cyber-savvy child! You are only saying, "I don't trust you to make the right decisions or come to me and talk through the issue and the options."