By the time children reach the teenage years, tech is entrenched in day-to-day activities, from school work to socializing. Teens are eager to explore the digital universe, which presents many dangers alongside its advantages. That puts parents in a tricky situation as they seek ways to protect their teens from the dangers lurking online without cutting them off from the digital world entirely.
Balance: The Right Approach to Teens and Tech
“Parents often struggle with the many questions surrounding this issue,” explains Angela Stringfellow, Managing Editor at Family Living Today. “Should your teenagers have their own smartphones? Should you permit them to join popular social networks and download the hottest messaging apps? And to what degree should you monitor your teen’s online activities, demonstrating that you trust them yet being diligent enough to identify and mitigate potential risky behaviors? There are so many what-ifs that parents often just don’t know where to begin.”
So what’s the best approach for parents who want to ensure their teen’s safety in the digital world, yet aren’t sure how to monitor and manage their teen’s online activity without watching their every move? “Like so many aspects of parenting, the technology issue is about balance,” Stringfellow suggests.
If your teen is venturing into the digital world, here are a few ways to encourage safe online behavior and ensure that your teen stays safe in the online world without going overboard and sacrificing trust.
- Talk to Your Teen About Safe Online Behavior: Teens first navigating the social media landscape may not realize that habits that seem ordinary could actually be exposing them to risks. Make sure your teen knows the safety risks of putting personal information online publicly – such as their phone number, home address, the name of their school, and personal photos. Agree to some guidelines together so that your teen feels like she’s participating in laying the groundwork. For instance, you and your teen might agree that she won’t accept friend requests from people she doesn’t know personally, at least without running it by you first. It’s also a good idea for teens to keep their profiles private, meaning that only people they’re connected with can see the information they share.
- Monitor, But Don’t Helicopter: Monitoring is a fair solution, but just how much monitoring you should do depends on factors such as your teen’s age, maturity, past behaviors, and any history of questionable encounters online. “This doesn’t mean that you have to have to approve every post your teen publishes. And you don’t have to sit with your teen as she or he use the Internet,” says Peggy McKibbin, a school nurse, in an article for the Family Online Safety Institute. “Just check-in every once in a while to see what sites your teen is visiting and how much time he or she is spending online.”
- Watch Out for Troubling Apps: Knowing what apps your teen has installed on her smartphone or tablet is a fair approach that gives parents an idea of how their kids are spending time online. The tricky part is that there are thousands of apps, and the must-have app of the moment can change from day to day. What’s more, some apps are disguised as something they’re not, designed to fool parents into thinking that a calculator is a calculator, when in fact it’s a secret photo messaging app. Stay on top of the most popular apps for teens and the associated risks with sites like Common Sense Media, which rates the safety of apps for different age levels and analyzes any risks that they present.
- Keep Open Lines of Communication: Parents are in the best position to proactively address many of the challenges of parenting teens (digital media, peer pressure and bullying, sex, drugs, and the like) when they have open lines of communication with their kids. When your teen feels like she can talk to you about anything, she’s more likely to come to you for guidance when she encounters situations she’s uncomfortable with online.
- Consider Tech Tools Designed for Parents: There are a variety of apps and services that help parents more efficiently monitor their kids’ online behaviors, such as TeenSafe, an online service that enables parents to monitor their teens’ texts, social media, phone calls, and phone location. This is the juncture at which many parents struggle. Your teenager may resist the idea of you having total visibility into all their communications, but for some parents, this is the right choice. Also, remember that you don’t have to view every chat message and conversation, but having the ability to do so when needed can provide peace of mind.
Don’t Focus so Much on the Negatives That You Lose Sight of the Positives
While it’s important to take precautions and remain vigilant, parents also shouldn’t ignore the creative and educational possibilities that exist in the digital world. “While we want our teens to be safe online, we also want them to feel empowered by the possibilities and resources the Internet offers,” says Kerry Gallagher, Director of K-12 Education for ConnectSafely.org. “There are opportunities for creativity. My teacher friends with kids from age 11 up through high school age have told me they create their own YouTube channels with original, upbeat video podcasts like Kid President or how-to videos like Club Academia.”
Gallagher points out that kids who engage in these types of online activities engage in skills such as brainstorming, drafting, and storyboarding, and parents who have safety concerns have options, such as setting videos to private.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for keeping teens safe in the digital world, but parents who follow these best practices can gain some peace of mind in knowing that they’ve laid a solid foundation – allowing their teens to explore the valuable opportunities for education and enrichment the online world has to offer, while setting the stage for a safe online experience.
Contributor: Cynthia Lopez