MD Mama

Understanding and parenting the online teen

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When I talk to parents about their teens being online, what I mostly hear is fear: fear about sexual predators, fear about Internet addiction, fear about cyberbullying. The last thing a parent wants to do is leave their teen alone online.

But leaving them alone online may be exactly what you need to do.

In "It's Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens," researcher danah boyd (she uses lower case for her name) explains why. The book is great, and a must-read for parents of teens. boyd interviewed teens about their lives and their internet use--and the interviews, and what she learned, are fascinating.

One of the most important points she makes is that the life of teens is different than it used to be. It's much more limited. Gone are the days of roaming the neighborhoods, hanging out in malls, driving around in cars. More and more, teens are constrained to their homes or to scheduled activities. Between all our concerns about their safety, and all the activities and schoolwork that we feel are so important for their current and future success, they just don't have the time and ability to "hang out" with their friends the way they used to.

So they "hang out" online.

So many of the teens boyd talked to would much rather be with their friends in person, but it's just not possible. Social media gives them the opportunity to socialize--and do all that stuff that teens do when they are together. From the outside, it can look silly and useless, all that people-watching, gossip, joking around, showing off and trying to look and act cool. But it's not silly or useless. It's all part of how teens separate from their parents and learn how to navigate the larger world.

That's what the Internet is becoming, in so many ways: the larger world. Not that the offline world is any less there or real. But the Internet is an important part of the world our teens are growing up in. It's a different kind of public: a networked public. And teens need to learn how to behave there too.

Parents worry about the privacy of their children--and it's true, teens share a lot. But they actually do think about privacy, boyd found. They just think about it differently. They are actually sophisticated in how they manage their online image. Yes, they need advice and guidance--but they actually do understand more than we realize.

And while they sometimes spend more time than we like, and parents should put some reasonable limits on that (I have many patients who aren't getting nearly enough sleep, in part due to social media), it's important to remember that this it's not all goofing around. A lot of it is socializing, and that's an important part of life as a teen.

As for the sexual predator fear...boyd says that for the most part, it's unfounded. It's really unlikely that your teen is going to run into a sexual predator, at least not the creepy-older-guy kind. It's certainly possible that your teen could flirt and say sexual things with peers--but they do that stuff offline too. It's not the Internet that's the issue; kids who do risky things offline tend to do risky stuff online too. Same goes for bullying: the online space didn't invent that, it just makes it more visible. Which, boyd points out, has an upside: it allows us to identify the youth who need help, and help them.

That's another important point boyd makes: we need grownups on the Internet. She doesn't like the idea of segregated spaces. She thinks we need more trusted adults, like teachers, to be on social media, watching and speaking up and reaching out. She thinks it's a mistake when schools say that teachers shouldn't interact with students in social media. She thinks that they should, in a transparent and supervised way, with usernames and passwords available to principals. Teens need trusted adults to learn from and lean on. 

I heard her describe it this way: think of kids riding bikes on the street, with grownups on front porches nearby. The grownups are talking, not really paying close attention as kids do wheelies and otherwise have fun. But when a kid falls, they get off their porch and go quickly to them. Kids need this online, too. They don't need or want parents and other adults stalking them--for them, that says that they aren't trusted. But they do need us nearby.

Boyd suggests having a piggy bank or some equivalent, and having teens write their social media usernames and passwords on them and stick them inside. Parents, she says, should only open that piggy bank if there is an emergency or other really compelling reason. Otherwise, rather than reading their Facebook or Twitter or Instagram posts, they should be talking to their teens: talking, and listening, about their online lives, and how they are living them.

"Adults should help youth develop the skills and perspective to productively navigate the complications brought about by living in networked publics," says boyd. It's really good advice, I think. Not easy advice, but the best advice for raising children in this new, networked world. 

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