Does being a good parent mean you have to know everything your child is up to? Parent Info examines when to let your teen become independent online
‘Teens turn to, and are obsessed with, whichever environment allows them to connect to friends. Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other.’
So says Danah Boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. She makes the point that it’s tempting to think that being a ‘good’ parent means knowing everything about what your child is up to, especially now the internet makes it easier to hover, lurk and track your children’s activity.
There’s no doubt that young people do need monitoring. Teenagers sometimes struggle to control their impulses and need help in managing their priorities. It’s often much easier and far more tempting to go skateboarding, play a computer game or go on Snapchat than it is to get down to homework.
Even so, following children’s activity on the internet very closely isn’t always good for them. Young people need space with their friends and they need to manage the impressions they’re making on other people of themselves in the context of their friendships.
Danah Boyd argues that when teens move away from their families towards their friends, parents often grow anxious – and not unreasonably: there’s often a gap between parents’ goals for their children and teenagers’ own desires. Parents can fear online spaces because they make it harder to set boundaries and isolate children from values that are different, or from other teenagers who aren’t doing so well.
The answer, though, Danah Boyd says, is not to blame the technology or to condemn what teenagers are trying to do. Establishing yourself in opposition to your parents is a natural part of growing up and technology is just one of the tools teenagers are using. A tactic that’s more likely to result in success is to recognise what young people are trying to achieve and work with them to think about what they’re encountering online, helping them to achieve balance between long-term goals and short-term desires.
What can parents do?
By Eleanor Levy, editor of Digital Parenting magazine
One way to help your child navigate the challenges of the online world by themselves is to encourage them to be digitally resilient.
As Danah Boys says, you can't be there with them all the time, but you can ensure they have the tools to look after themselves when you're not.
‘Make sure they have someone else they can talk to if they don't want to upset you’
Check that your child knows where to report unpleasant or inappropriate contact on social media, and that they know how to use privacy settings so they can control who they interact with. Make sure they know how to block those they don't want to have anything to do with.
One thing you can do as a parent is to let your child know that whatever they encounter online, even if they're using a social media app they're too young to sign up for, they can always talk to you if there's a problem.
Children often feel they can't tell their parents when something bad happens because they don't want to let them down. This is a perfectly natural reaction, so make sure they have someone else they can talk to if they don't want to upset you.
And if they have a bad experience, support them when they regain the confidence to go back online. In the 21st century, many young people see social media as being as essential as the telephone for communication. Telling them not to use it if something goes wrong is unlikely to work and may end up with them doing so behind your back, making it less likely they will come to you if they need help.
Parent Zone parent guides offer advice on using privacy settings and reporting.
Check out the Tools section of Digital Parenting magazine for information on the social media apps your child uses.
A parent's guide to digital resilience offers background and information on how to help your child become digitally resilient.
The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.
First published: September 2014
Updated: May 2018