I am getting asked more and more in my practice about how to talk to teens about situations that involve racy interchanges on Facebook, sending inappropriate pictures via text, and other Internet situations that spiral out of control. As the social media landscape continues to grow and change, these questions are coming up more and more and parents are looking for answers.
First of all, it's very important that parents become knowledgeable about how their teenagers are communicating, even though it seems the kids will always be a step ahead with new technologies and new platforms. I fully admit that I am not as knowledgeable as my patients when it comes to navigating all of the social media and Internet nuances, but that doesn't mean I don't ask questions or seek out new information. An overwhelmed and tech-anxious parent may want to avoid the Internet all together, figuring "what I don't know won't hurt me," but given the risks associated with constantly plugged-in teens, this is a dangerous position. These days, knowledge and support from tech savvy parents is power.
Starting at a young age, even before your child gets the phone, the iPad, or any of the other devices, I advocate for transparency and open dialogue. You shouldn't start having a conversation about Internet safety and rules of phone and computer use after an incident. I have a 3 ￂﾽ-year-old, and he uses my Kindle to do puzzles and draw when I am getting ready for work. Sometimes he throws a tantrum when it's time to put it away. But I use this time as an opportunity to talk about the Kindle being my possession and reminding him that he is only allowed to use it when we deem it appropriate.
When the dialogue about use of devices starts at a young age, and when parents are models and practice what they preach, kids realize that rules mean more than just rules. Kids see that phones are put away at dinner, screen time is limited, and internet use is monitored by adults.
As young kids become teenagers and start to enter the social media territory, this is a time for more conversation about several things, including that appropriate language and behavior are expected both online and off. It's a time for discussion about what cyber bullying is and what you want your child to do if she is bullied or if she witnesses it. It's also a time to be sure to convey that you want your child to feel that they can come to you without fear that you will be mad or judgmental. They are more likely to come to you if they truly feel you will listen.
What if you see some Facebook conversations that you frankly feel shocked and embarrassed by? Again, conversation is key. Starting with a simple, "I saw your Facebook post... what's up?" is a good way to get the ball rolling. Or, "I saw some things on your wall that I'm concerned about. Let's talk." If you have already set the precedent that you can and do look at your child's internet activity, there shouldn't be much shock on your child's part. He or she may be angry at you or feel intruded upon, but again, if this is something you have talked about before, there's no need to react to their reaction. In fact, you can say that this is exactly the kind of thing that you need to be talking about. Express your reasons for being concerned and reiterate your feelings about explicit behavior on or offline. This may also open up a dialogue about self-respect, setting boundaries, and privacy.
Hard as it may be, you want your tone to be open and concerned -- not angry and blaming, or shocked and horrified. And you don't want to start out by slapping on a bunch of restrictions. You're not going to be able to have a real conversation if you do that, and kids will be more prone to do an end-run around the rules if they don't feel that you understand them. Social media may not seem important to you, but it can seem like life or death to teenagers.
And this is an important opportunity to find out what your child is thinking about sex, whether he or she is sexually active or not, and to communicate your expectations on that front, too. Sharing your values about sex and relationships can give your child needed support to make good decisions. Letting kids know that you are comfortable talking frankly about sex is especially important in case they find themselves in a situation they are not sure how to handle.
Remember, even the tough conversations can be good because families need to talk about these topics, and it's important for you to know what's happening in your child's life.