Become a Digitally Involved Parent
By Stephanie Seabrooke
Raising children in the digital age can feel worlds away from what growing up was like for previous generations. Chatting with a friend on a landline was a fun way for us to spend an evening in high school, while most of today’s teens have smartphones and can talk to anyone in the world on apps like Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram. Completing a research assignment for school used to mean spending hours in the library, whereas now our kids can access an endless stream of information available on the internet. And though boredom was an inevitable part of life when we were young, today there’s an entire industry devoted to online games promising 24/7 entertainment. And while these technological advances can offer great advantages to our children, there can be a dark side to spending so much time in front of a screen. Cyberbullying and online addictions have shattered the lives of many young people and their families, and their parents are often unaware of the danger their children are in until it’s too late.
That’s why it’s so important to embrace technology as a learning and social tool for your teen while also staying engaged in their online life. By keeping a few guidelines in mind as you become a digitally involved parent, you can monitor who they are connecting with and identify any red flags or issues before they become a serious threat.
Start a Dialogue
Maintaining an open line of communication with your kids is the first line of defense against online hazards. Even though it may seem like your teen considers you “uncool” and would rather share their feelings with friends than their parents, they still need to know they can turn to you for guidance if they encounter a dangerous situation in their digital life. Initiate a conversation about cyberbullying to let them know you’re aware of it, and encourage them to alert you immediately if anyone ever makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable online. It’s also important to stress to your child that you will never judge them for being a victim of online harassment, even if it involves something embarrassing like racy photos or offensive language.
Your teen’s digital life is likely a huge part of their identity at this phase of development, so you should embrace that as a way to stay connected to what’s happening in their world. Let them know you’re interested in how they incorporate technology into their daily life. Instead of rolling your eyes when they take yet another selfie for their Instagram account, ask what photo filter they used and how many hashtags they’re going to include when they post it. Insist on viewing all their online accounts at least occasionally so you can familiarize yourself with their digital social circle. Keeping tabs on your teen’s online interests and habits will also help you recognize any changes in their digital routine, which could be a red flag that they’re experiencing harassment or falling into an online addiction.
Though it’s important to accept the role of technology in your teen’s life, you should still be placing restrictions on their screen time and monitoring who they interact with online. Setting rules on how and when your child can access the internet and social media is one of the most effective ways to prevent cyberbullying and avoid an unhealthy addiction to online games and social media sites. Although the specific limits you set will depend on the individual needs of your family, some rules to consider are a ban on technology during family mealtime and the occasional “screen free” day that focuses on reading, exercising, and activities with family or friends instead of online interaction.
The most effective strategy against cyberbullying is ensuring your child knows how to respect others as well as themselves. While we often strive to teach our children manners from a young age – reminding them to say “please” and “thank you” and to share their toys – we can forget that courtesy is just as important as they become older and join the digital world. Let your teen know that if something is too hurtful to say to someone’s face, then it shouldn’t be typed online either. You should also stress that if someone is making them uncomfortable online by sending offensive or threatening messages or by requesting inappropriate personal information, they should take it just as seriously as if it were happening in the “real world” and alert you immediately.
Your teenager’s rich digital life may not mirror your own youth, but it’s important to remember that today’s technology is a vital part of how they experience the world. While the internet and social media can offer a multitude of positive experiences, there are also dangers that come with so much online interaction. By keeping an open line of communication, monitoring their digital social circle, setting firm limits on screen time, and instilling respect for themselves and others, you can protect your teen from becoming a victim of the devastating effects of cyberbullying and online addiction.
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