Parenting Teens Through Online Mistakes

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Never before has a generation of teenagers been had the ability to impact their entire future with the click of a mouse or upload of a photo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing we get a lot of questions about from parents of teenagers is how to help them understand what is ok and not ok to post on social media sites and on the internet in general.   It is an important question, but not one that comes with a quick or easy answer.  Part of the challenge we all face in understanding how social media and interacting in the online world will affect today’s teens is that we have no precedent to use as a starting point.   There has never been a generation of teenagers who had the ability to impact their entire future with one click of a mouse.  While that may sound alarmist, the one thing we do know for certain is that there can be real and lasting consequences when inappropriate things are posted or uploaded online.

In addition to the lack of precedent, teenagers themselves, or rather the fact that they are teenagers, presents another obstacle to helping them understand and adhere to good ground rules.   One of the most significant changes teenagers undergo is establishing their own identity, separate and distinct from their parents.  This often involves things like rebellious behavior, secrecy, and hiding things from parents.

This presented certain challenges and exposed teens to dangers in previous generations but most transgressions had a short shelf life.  Teens may have worried about things that ended up on their “permanent record” but everything else was treated as generally harmless teenage behavior.  That was because there was no fear that a college, future employer, or law enforcement officer would be able to find every inappropriate picture, mean comment, or teenage transgression with nothing more than a computer and a search engine.  The unfortunate truth for today’s teens is that everything they do online, every picture they post, link they share, and comment they make is essentially written to this new permanent record.

Recent years have seen parents go to extremes in an effort to help get this message across to their teenagers.  Tough love parenting tactics like publicly calling teens out on their Facebook page or twitter feed or changing their profile picture to one that indicates they are too immature to use social media have made the news time and again.  But many parents are as uncomfortable with this kind of approach as they are with corporal punishment.  Furthermore, there is no indication that these tactics are effective at curbing the undesired behavior.  In some instances, this approach can drive a wedge between teens and parents or send the message that if someone does something you don’t like; it is ok to humiliate them, especially in public.

Given everything we know, the answer to this question is the same as it is for many of the most common dilemmas parents face when raising teenagers.   In order to help teenagers learn what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior and to understand the consequences of making bad decisions, parents need to consistently and repeatedly communicate with their teenagers, set boundaries and guidelines, explain the consequences, and model the desired behavior.  As with any other decision a teenager needs to make, the key to making the right decision about what to post or say online is knowing how to make a good decision, a skill that every parent can hand down to their teen.

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