TeenChattingGood parents want to teach their children to walk and run, but still protect them when they fall. Healthy parenting is finding a balance between opportunity and risk. Children need to have the opportunity to grow and explore with as little risk of endangerment as possible. As children transition to adulthood, it is the teen that needs to find this balance. In the digital age, the risks are not as well defined as parents knew them to be in year’s past. If the parent is not savvy with this technology, the parental safety net may not be there.

Chatting 101

Most mobile telephones have texting capability, and smartphones can have specialized chatting applications loaded onto them. A study of 5,000 teens by PiperJaffray revealed that kids are migrating away from Facebook and Twitter toward more age-appropriate chat applications, like Snapchat and Kik, both of which are on the increase. These apps allow teens to send quick text messages in a chat format, which comes easier to teens. There may even be the age-old reason for the decrease in Facebook and Twitter use — it’s where their parents hang out!

The Snapchat app can be downloaded onto a smartphone, allowing teens to take a picture with the phone, add a text message and send it to a friend. This one-on-one privacy, differs from Twitter. If a person performs the same operation in Twitter, the message would default to a worldwide visibility. Anyone could see the message, unless the user specifically adjusted the privacy on the message. Also, once the recipient gets the message, he is free to save it or forward it to anyone else.

Nothing Changes in a Changing World

Text chats may seem unfamiliar to adults of a certain age, but their use by teens is simply an expansion of normal interpersonal communication. Most adults might only have experience with chat tools via websites with a customer service rep, similar to the live help on Liveperson, or similar sites. Now social spheres have taken on a digital platform. The method of communication generally does not change the meaning of the message.

In her book “Raising Digital Families for Dummies“, social media family expert Amy Lupold Bair suggests parents understand the online playing field as well as their children. Parents need to understand why teens text so frequently, how to manage the flow of communication and where it can lead. Some parents choose to be overly militaristic with their oversight, but that might lead to needless blowups between parent and teen. It’s better for a mom or dad to recognize their teen’s need to use digital communication, the types of chat systems available, and be a helpful mediator.

The Huffington Post followed a 14-year old girl’s use of digital technology and her steps in healthy communication and risky behavior. The take-away from the article is that using or, more importantly, not using digital communication is intricately linked to social status. This is not about “haves” and “have nots.” This is a statement of practicality. If texting is the method of communication, then one must be able to text in order to receive messages.

The Need for Privacy

Diary locks, ‘Keep Out’ signs, secrets among friends and even a well-timed roll of the eyes are all staples of an adolescent’s quest for privacy. This is both natural and healthy. In any family system, a person will play multiple roles. The woman may flip from mother to wife, to lover in the home and business woman in the workplace, to friend and yoga expert outside of the home. The same is mostly true for an adolescent, with one big exception. Teens are still finding their ways with multiple roles. A teen is accustomed to being child and student, but is still learning how to be the role of friend, and possibly even boyfriend or girlfriend, or new employee. The teen is creating new roles outside of the family structure.

This is where the balance between opportunity and risk come into play, and the parent holds an important position. Today’s youth are smart. They understand privacy issues more than their parents. One of the reasons that Snapchat and Kik have become popular is that teens know the Internet has a permanency of its own. They understand that they will do or post something stupid at some point. These programs allow the user to control the content. They do not store data for the long term, like Facebook or Twitter. Likewise, they limit the amount of people that can see the message.

It is the last part that most concerns parents. Some parents consider these programs too private in that the messages cannot be seen by the parent. Raising a digital family means being part of the digital world in which the teen lives. It is a balancing act. Most parents have little interest in the often inane conversation of an adolescent. This is the opportunity of a teen to grow in the social realm. But the parent needs enough access to assess the risks of the communication.