Growing Up Digital
Don’t tell your teens this, but their brains aren’t fully developed. The part of the brain that’s used for reasoning and controlling impulses doesn’t fully mature until we’re in our mid-20s. That means, as parents fully understand, that teens (and the younger tweens) behave impetuously and tend make bad decisions.
Teens also have an immature sense of responsibility and the consequences of their decisions. Research shows that their brains are much more emotionally driven than an adult brain, making them more susceptible to peer pressure and outside influences.
Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, describes the teenage brain this way: “[it’s] like a car with a good accelerator but a weak brake. With powerful impulses under poor control, the likely result is a crash.”
The number of channels and the amount of information to which teens have access is mind-boggling. Not only can they consume endless amounts of information, but these channels create unprecedented opportunity to explore, rebel and push up against boundaries as young people create their own identities.
What once occurred offline - that journey that we all went on to define ourselves at that age—is now visible and permanent, recorded on the web. This can be unnerving, but also highlights three potential obstacles for parents:
- Because social networks and online sites are not necessarily intuitive for parents, parents don’t always understand the media their kids are participating in.
- Teen behaviors and their norms are different than their parents (aren’t they always?)
- Teens’ behavior, thoughts, images and activities are on display and instantly accessible by, well... anyone.
It’s important to understand where your teen is spending his or her time online. For many parents, this may mean becoming more familiar with how the sites specifically, and the Internet generally, work. The most popular sites for teens are MySpace and Facebook. Lots of teens also participate in online gaming (though Xbox, Wii or PS2), post and view videos on YouTube and are prolific text messagers. Facebook, however, continues to grow in popularity as MySpace continues to fall.
If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest country in the world. Each of its 400 million users, most of whom access the site regularly, has a profile. This profile serves the crux for all Facebook activities. With a profile, you can become “friends” with other people who have profiles and participate in communities on the site.
The basic activity for most Facebook users is to share status updates. Facebook asks the question - “what’s on your mind?” People share ideas, activities, interests, inane banter, links, videos and plenty more.
Each profile owner can also interact with others to whom you’re connect as “friends.” A user can“like” a friend’s status (give it a thumbs up), comment on a status update, send gifts and also send private messages. Facebook also allows users to post photos and videos.
With a profile, you can also “like” businesses, brands, groups or even seemingly nebulous (and often very silly) associations around things like: “People who investigate strange noises in horror movies deserve to die” (110,000+ fans) or “’Mom, can we go?" "Yeah, just a second" *10 minutes later* "MOM...’” (with 750,000+ fans)
- Facebook has adjustable privacy settings that allow the user to adjust who can see his or her content. However, the default settings are very permissive.
- Regardless of privacy settings, anyone and everyone is able to view the profile picture, likes and interests and friends list.
Rita Radostitz, a single mom of 13-year-old twin girls in Eugene, Ore., said that setting clear expectations and having an open dialogue has helped her daughters learn how to appropriately use Facebook.
“I am not only their “friend” on Facebook,” she said. “I also have the passwords to their accounts and total control over the privacy settings, which are set to be as restrictive as Facebook will allow.”
Rita also reads all their posts and comments and takes down those that are inappropriate. “That’s only happened once or twice,” she added. “When it does, the result is the loss of Facebook privileges for a week.”
Bil Morrill of Cottage Grove, Ore. added that computer use is a privilege for his three daughters, ages 9 to 15. “Our kids can use the computer if Mom and Dad aren’t home, but not the Internet,” he said.
Many parents echo the Morill’s rule adding that any use takes place in the family room or other common space in the house rather than in a bedroom.
Dixie Bender, mom of three boys (all tweens and teens) in Monroe, Wash., added, “We have a rule that if any of the boys signs up for any sites, they are to let us know and give us the password. It keeps them honest—they don't want to lose their computer time.”
The Radostitz’ also talk about what is safe to share online and what is not. Helping your kids understand the three big areas of risk will help them recognize potential issues. iKeepSafe.org suggests that the risks of online participation can be put in three categories:
Inappropriate Contact –Teach kids how to recognize and protect themselves against contact with cyber-bullies, hackers, phishers, and predators. People aren't always who they say they are. Kids should know how to keep away from Internet strangers: The Internet is not a place to meet new people.
Inappropriate Content - This includes both content that is viewed and content that is uploaded by kids. Help kids understand that the Internet is forever: everything they post online is tracked and stored and will follow them to future job interviews and college entrance interviews.
Inappropriate Conduct – Because the web environment can feel anonymous, some youth become disinhibited. Teach kids that the Internet is a public forum: anonymity is a myth. Help them be the good person online that they are when they’re off line.
R U 4 Real?Texting is the preferred mode of communication for teens, with the average teens sending more than 50 text messages a day (one-third send more than 100 a day). But texting can also be a gateway to bullying, sharing inappropriate content (like sexting) and disclosing private information. In fact, in recent cyber-bullying cases in the news all had a text messaging aspect - with the bullies sending harassing text messages to their victims.
With cell phones also providing access to the Web and online content, it’s important to set guidelines with your teens about how to text and use their cell phone responsibly.
- Consider time or situation limits on texting - maybe limited to an hour a day or not at the dinner table. It’s also crucial to emphasize that your teen should never be texting while driving.
- Review your teens message logs regularly. Understand how your teen’s phone works and check in regularly to ensure messages are appropriate.
- Never reply to text messages from people you don’t know and don’t share your cell phone number. Learn how to block numbers from your phone and remember that private information should never be shared via cell phone.
- Talk to your teen about sending inappropriate photos via text message (sexting). Remind him or her that once a picture is sent, how it’s distributed is out of their control. Imagine that photo on Facebook, or being forwarded by the receiver to friends as a “joke.”
Parents who have a presence in the online world of their kids will be seen at different times as role model, enemy, powers-that-be, teacher and intruder. In order to keep them safe, parents need to reconcile this, set guidelines and learn the tools.
Remain aware of what’s happening in their online world. Regular check-ins, reviewing accounts and browser history and communicating (whether they like it or not) will allow you to keep one foot on the brake in your teen’s online life until they really are ready to drive the car on their own.
*** Kelli Matthews is an instructor of social media and public relations at the University of Oregon. Her son is just four, but can navigate her iPhone like a digital native. She’s certain that his tween and teenage years will keep her on her toes.
Additional ResourcesVideo tutorials on social networks and safety
Wired Safety says it’s the world’s largest resource for online safety with lots of tips, videos and tutorials.
8 Ways to Protect Your Kids on Social Networks from Consumer Reports
For teens, NetSmart Teens has videos, games and tips.