Social networking: An age-old problem dressed in gadgets and gizmos
By Terri Ducker, MA, MS Licensed Therapist


My, how times have changed. If you are in my generation, then I am sure you are amazed at the level of technology that inundates our teenagers who do not remember a time without computers, cell phones, iPads and iPods, wireless, Hulu, YouTube, and the constantly changing smart technology. I can’t help but reflect on my own teenage years when I was so happy my brother passed on his small black-and-white television that, with the assistance of some aluminum foil and a coat hanger, I could get at least three channels so that I could remain in my room (three brothers left little room in the democratic process of choosing shows so Brady Bunch never won over Batman). Instead of a personal cell phone, I shared one corded phone with my three brothers and my mom, often stretching the cord as far as I could to keep anybody from eavesdropping. One of my treasures as an adult is a shoebox full of letters from friends and boyfriend that were passed during school hours and hidden from my mom.

Social media in my world existed in the school commons, on the playground or in the five minutes passing from class to class. Certain social circles were much more difficult to navigate (the only people who “friended” me were in the band or the theater, and it was impossible for anybody in my school to have more than 300 friends). And the only way my mom met my friends was if I brought them to my house. For me, a Tweet involved getting on my bike and meeting my followers at the local public swimming pool. And when I was being bullied, or excluded or unfriended, I would write it in my private journal, cry in my closet and my mom was none the wiser. This ancient technology had a profound effect on creating a large divide between kids and parents, especially when the parents worked. Rarely did I talk to family unless it was in person. When I went to a friend’s house I would only call when I needed a ride home, and notes to mom were set on the dining room table.

And so, technology has quickly provided a connection that has shifted our world in profound ways; both good and bad, and parents are forced to make decisions daily about what responsible parenting looks like in a world that is very different than the one they navigated as teenagers … or is it really that much different? As a therapist working with teenagers, I must say that while there are definitely some dangers in regards to this world of social media, there are also some great opportunities for parents to be more involved in helping teenagers develop their social skills, navigate peer relationships, develop an understanding of how their actions reflect their values and ethics and build their own decision-making process to set healthy boundaries that will help form a strong sense of identity. To take full advantage of these opportunities, the following tips could be quite helpful:

1. Educate yourself – Yes, it seems overwhelming when you begin the process of exploring Facebook and Twitter, but these sites are user friendly and designed so that even kids can figure them out. This can be a great thing to do together, and your kids can help you learn while you talk about the values you hold as a family. You can’t help your kids if you don’t know anything about it.

2. Look for the positive – I have heard many adults scoff and judge these sites for multiple reasons, but to your kids this is no different than meeting their friends at the community pool or hanging out in the lunchroom cafeteria. If your kids only hear you criticize their cyber-community, they will be less likely to come to you when there may be cyber-bullying taking place or, even worse, when they decide to talk to a stranger online and are trying to decide if they should meet in person. When you can see it from their perspective, then they will be more willing to come to you with questions rather than some online stranger.

3. Set rules that are age appropriate – Only you know the social skills that your tween or teen has, and in the same way you set an age to date, an age to drive and age to stay up later, you need to set rules that are developmentally appropriate. Many of the problems I see in my office have evolved because parents have given cell phones and computers for their own convenience rather than thinking about the pitfalls. While wireless carriers have convinced parents that their whole family needs a phone, it is my belief that cell phones should only be given to teenagers with jobs, with an understanding that they will need to pay a portion of the bill. Teenagers I meet have no ability to set boundaries in relationships, and to have a cell phone before they have gained interpersonal skills is fraught with danger that has yet to be fully researched.

4. Set consequences that are meaningful – If they break the rules, then they are not ready for the freedom that you have given, and you will need to restrict them. Again, this is no different from when a kid fails to follow curfew, gets caught going someplace other than an approved house or skips school. The reason this is important is because it helps guide their decision making. If they know an inappropriate text message will mean that you get to keep their cell phone for a week, then they will think before pressing send.

5. Monitor and limit usage – Yes, as parents it is your right and responsibility to monitor all phone and computer usage until they pay for their own Internet and cell phone and no longer live under your roof. There is a great site, Family OnLine Safety Institute (www.fosi.org), which provides multiple resources for parents and kids to help understand the reason this is important. When I talk to teens I help them understand that parents often need to do this, not because they don’t trust their own kids, but because they don’t trust other people. Place limits on technology so they can build personal relationship skills and you can build a strong family. Have family nights that involve putting away all devices and planning family activities that are active and engaging.

6. Educate your child and begin early – The online world is merely an extension of the real world, and as you talk about stranger danger in the world, you need to talk about it on the computer. If you don’t teach your children, somebody else will. Think of it like when you taught them to ride their bikes. Training wheels helped them experience success, but you were there until they finally got it. They are going to fall, and when they do, that is your chance to help them understand how to make different choices. Some parents have a knee-jerk reaction and just pull the plug, but then your child won’t learn, but will just resent you.|