Teenagers & Technology: The Secret to Parenting Digital Natives

“I have no idea what to do”

“It is not what I grew up with”

“I don’t understand it.”

“I have no idea what they are doing and it scares me!”

“It is a part of their life in a way I will never be able to appreciate or comprehend!”

These comments, and many more just like them, come from parents of teenagers who are struggling with how to deal with their teenager and their use of technology.

With the proliferation of social media, messaging apps, and online gaming, many parents are feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped to manage their teenager’s engagement with technology.

Maybe you know parents like this, or maybe you are personally struggling and anxious in dealing with your own teenager’s technology use.

If this is you then read on.

In this post, I want to free you from the sense of helplessness and challenge you to fully embrace parenting teenagers in the digital age. While parenting teenagers in the digital age is challenging, it is not impossible. In fact, you might be surprised just how prepared you already are!

The Negative Bias

Let’s start with understanding what is really happening for those of us who are old enough to have grown up with Walkmans, mixed tapes and VHS recorders and are now parenting in a different era.

The ever-changing and ubiquitous presence of digital technology and social media in our kid’s lives creates a sense of unease and unsettledness in us parents.

That is fair enough. We didn’t grow up with it – we are not natives in the digital territory.

But it is worth examining exactly what is much of our unease and unsettledness really about? Is it just about the technology or could other influences be at play?

Back when we were growing up and going through adolescence, were our parents prone to being fearful and worried about us? Were they concerned the world was more dangerous and opportunities for harm greater than in their day?

You bet they were.

Feeling anxious about our kids as they go through adolescence is a normal part of being a parent, and has been for generations. We live in a culture were we are conditioned in so many ways to fear the teenage years as parents. The narrative goes; “do the best you can when the kids are little and hope your kid avoids drug addiction, pregnancy, gang membership, a fatal automobile accident, or running away from home and excommunicating you from their life when they become teenagers!” …or words to that effect.

Parents always feel anxious as their kids enter the teenage years – it is natural, it is okay, in fact it is good to acknowledge you need to change your parenting game for those crucial years.

But fear of adolescence is not all that is going on.

For many parents letting their “baby” grow up is a painful and difficult process.

As parents, we put our entire heart and soul into raising kids. Is there any other vocation in life more deserving of our complete devotion and self-investment than that of raising our offspring?

There we are, loving our kids with all we have, and then adolescence happens. They start to change. They drift away from us. It feels like they need us less. They start to value others more than us and choose things we don’t want them to choose. We feel the pain of coming off the pedestal we used to enjoy being on.

This natural process of adolescence, whereby kids start to disconnect from their parents in order to formulate an independent sense of self, also creates anxiousness in parents. There is grief as a stage of life passes and uncertainty about how to manage the coming years emerges. Parents feel less in control and less able to care for or protect their kids.

These feeling are also perfectly normal and to be expected. Some degree of disconnectedness and loss are inevitable for all parents during the teenage years. The feelings are valid, worth acknowledging and worth grieving the associated sense of loss.

In this context, where parents are fearful of the risks their teenager will encounter and experience the anxiety of separateness that occurs during adolescence, let’s overlay a new experience. Let’s throw into the mix rapidly evolving and disruptive technology that is completely foreign and different to anything parents grew up with, the technology that absorbs teenagers, and becomes a dominant part of their everyday life.

What do you think happens to parents?

Their fear and anxieties increase.

Teenage engagement with digital technology and social media amplifies and compounds existing parental anxieties associated with raising teenagers. Digital technology taps into all the feelings of fear and disconnectedness and augments them even more. This compounding effect frames and shapes the way many parents approach the whole issue of digital parenting.

Technology becomes a type of lightning rod for parental anxiety.

Phones and computers are tangible, physical objects, perfect for displacing and projecting fear and confusion onto. Stories of kids being preyed upon by deviant adults via social media, or teens being humiliated and victimised via messaging apps and viral photos, serve as the perfect justification for the anxiety.

Parenting is about balancing the fear associated with risks, with the need to let teenagers spread their wings. Fear is a natural and useful part of parenting.

But the fear can be unhelpful when it becomes fatalistic and disempowering. Fear hinders rather than helps when it creates a negative bias in how we parent.

A negative bias occurs when we expect the worst from any possible situation. When we always look at the situation as a problem rather than an opportunity, or we act and react based on the worst-case outcome not the best case, we have a negative bias.

In regards to the issue of parenting digital teens, this negative bias manifests itself in both the deep-seated fear parents bring to the topic, and in the feelings of helplessness elicited when confronted with managing teens and technology.

Many parents who contact me display anxiety and helplessness in being able to take action in regards to their teen’s technology use. In many cases, their fears and helplessness are disproportionate to the size of the problem. The risks are not as big, and the solutions not as complicated, as they are causing themselves to believe. They are viewing the situation with a negative bias.

So what do you do if you are finding yourself anxious and helpless in the area of parenting teenagers and their technology use?

Begin with checking your negative bias, then focus on the real issue, your teenager’s behaviour.

The Issue is Behavioural not Technological

When confronted with teenagers and technology the negative bias so common in modern parenting results in parents focusing on the technology, it’s inherent “evil” and looking for ways to either eliminate it or find a technological solution i.e. filter or spyware.

This twin fold obsession with the inherent dangers of digital technology and the paradoxical belief that only more technology can deal with the danger is causing parents to miss the opportunity to parent their teenagers in all areas of life.

If you believe that the problem with what teenagers do online is a technological one then you are missing a vital truth. Technology does not make teenagers do things. Teenagers are responsible for their own behaviour.

Equipping teenagers to manage their online worlds and digital technology responsibly is a behavioural issue, not a technology issue.

As I have written about previously technology is just another avenue or domain for humans to either behave or misbehave in. The dangers and risks online are effectively just new expressions of human misbehaviour that has been present for generations.

Technology use and online safety is about critical thinking and appropriate behaviour. The misuse and abuse of technology is misbehaviour. At a very fundamental level parenting kids about how they use technology is exactly the same as how you parent kids in all other areas of life, you teach them how to think and act appropriately.

The challenge for so many people of my generation (Gen X) and older, is to see past the technology and view it in the context of normal life.

The digital revolution has fundamentally changed the world, in the same way the printing press and the steam engine did. Digital technology is a normal and increasingly dominant feature of everyday life. Parents have a responsibility to raise kids with the ability to contribute constructively to this society. This means teaching young people how to act responsibly and wisely with their phones and computers, just as we teach them to act sensibly around traffic, bodies of water, and when visiting their grandmother.

Once parents stop focusing on technology as the problem and the negative bias that accompanies it, they realise the requirement of managing technology-related behavioural issues with teenagers is the same as for any other parenting challenge.

There is no new special code to unlock or parenting mountain to conquer. Instead, digital parenting is about the same old topics parenting has always being about; instilling values, teaching skills, establishing boundaries, nurturing confidence, building trust, and fostering responsibility.

When parents grasp this simple, but profound fact, raising wise and sensible digital citizens becomes a whole lot easier.

The secret to raising kids who use technology responsibly and sensibly is to raise responsible and sensible teenagers!

That is the big secret.

If your kids are well adjusted, sensible, and responsible in other areas of life, they are most likely going to be the same way online and in their digital media use.

If your teenager is not being responsible online chances are they not being responsible in other areas of life. Teenagers who don’t respect themselves online are very likely to be not respecting themselves in other spaces as well.

So if the issue is primarily behavioural, what is it parents can do to equip their teenagers to be safe and responsible users of technology?

At the risk of over simplifying, I have detailed 5 key areas that are vital to raising responsible teens and apply directly to online behaviour. The list could be longer, but hopefully these examples will get you thinking and give you enough insight to expand and start applying to other areas yourself.

Set Boundaries

Just as in all other areas of life, teenagers need boundaries to help them develop the ability to manage themselves in the big wide world. Boundaries that are age / stage appropriate and expand with your teenager work the same way with technology as they do with other areas of life; physical safety, appropriate language, late night curfews, healthy eating, sexual expression etc.

Set boundaries with your teenager. And I mean do it with them.

Have discussions about when, where, how often, and what they can and can’t do online. Have clear times when phones and tablets need to be turned off, limits on the amount of game time each day, and come up with sensible expectations for how much time is spent socialising online.

As your kids get older you will need to adjust and expand the boundaries.

Start early, like when they are children. Trying to establish boundaries around technology for the first time with a 17-year-old will be a lot harder than with a 10-year-old.

A lot of people who contact me about their teenagers out of control technology use are dealing with 16, 17, 18-year-olds who have had years of relatively unlimited access to screens, and now their parents are trying to set limits. Not easy!

It is so important to set firm boundaries when kids are younger so they develop healthy habits.

As with all other boundaries, when teens overstep the mark there needs to be consequences that teach and equip appropriate behaviour in the future. Be mindful of not going overboard with consequences such they become punitive.

The online world is an integral part of many teenagers social world. Exclusion from technology is often the equivalent to social exclusion from peers. The cost for teenagers when this happens can be high. Be mindful of the full impact of these types of consequences to ensure they a proportionate to failure they are dealing with.

For some questions to get you started on setting digital boundaries with your teens check out this earlier post.

Teach Self Control

One of the unique risks associated with digital technology is the potential consequence of impulsive behaviour. Teenage brains that are wired to act impulsively are susceptible to sharing in regrettable ways via text or social media.

However, these same brains are just as impulsive in sexually charged physical encounters, driving in cars with friends, or experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

Teaching teens how to control their impulsive desires is a normal part of raising teenagers. It is not an issue of technology, but of growing up in general.

Parents need to be intentional about talking to and equipping teenagers how to make sensible decisions in the heat of the moment, be that moment online or in the physical world.

Teaching teens to think first then act is no small feat and requires honest conversations, intentional tutoring, and frequent reminding.

One of the most effective ways to help teens avoid making impulsive choices, is to teach them how to avoid putting themselves in situations where the opportunity is likely to arise. In the digital space this means being sensible about when you allow you kids to have access to certain apps and platforms, managing the time of day they are online, and teaching them about what type of online spaces are unhelpful or risky.

Managing the desire for instant gratification is an increasing challenge for all of us who use digital technology on daily basis.

When it comes to self-control and technology, parents do well to focus on the example they set. Parents who read and respond to text messages during conversations, take phone calls at the dinner table, check Facebook and email before they get out of bed in the morning, take their phone to bed, or answer the phone while driving a vehicle, will have a pretty hard time teaching their teenagers to be self controlled when it comes to using technology.

If you want your teens to think before they post or send a picture, you need to be focused on modeling self-control and restraint in your own use of technology.

Similarly parents of teenagers should be talking to their teens about making responsible choices in all facets of daily life, online communication being one of them. For further ideas on how to do this have a look at the following;

Teaching Teens Emotional Intelligence

Parents & Teenagers: 5 Must Have Conversations

Sex, Texts, & Automobiles

Teenage Anger Management: Help for Parents

Create a Sense of Belonging

Teens who have a strong sense of attachment to their family are far less likely to engage in high risk or destructive behaviours in all areas of life.

When kids have a clear sense of where they come from, who their tribe is, and what they stand for, they are at much less risk of needing anything from those whose intentions are less than helpful. Teenagers who come from a home with a strong sense of identity and value are far more resilient and better able to resist negative pressure.

When kids feel like they belong they adopt the values and exhibit the behaviour of the group they belong to. Want your teen to own your values and standards of behaviour; then focus on creating a home where they belong and feel significant.

Instilling values in our kids happens by spending time with them, living out the values together, and by modelling and telling of the importance and significance of those values.

If you are worried about your teenager treating himself and others with respect online, then teach him to be respectful in all areas of life, including around family members. If you are worried about your daughter sending unhelpful images of herself through the airwaves, then focus on reinforcing her value to you, the family, and ultimately to herself by the words you use towards her and the stories you tell her every day.

A good way to promote safe online behaviour with your teen is to do the following offline:

  • Make sure everyone in the home treats each other with respect
  • Tell and show your teen regularly that you love them and value who they are
  • Spend time every week as a family having fun together
  • Eat meals together (without phones or TVs) as often as possible
  • Tell stories to your kids that demonstrate what matters in life
  • Embrace your teen’s interests as part of the family interests

When teenagers have a strong attachment to the family unit (whatever form that takes) they generally have healthy self-esteem, resilience, and a good sense of right and wrong. These characteristics go along way to fostering sensible online behaviour.

Teach Assertiveness

Helping teens make sensible safe decisions online is the same as helping them make those decisions in the physical world.

Teenagers need to be able to clearly express what they are okay with and not okay within any given situation. The ability to say no, to opt out, and to resist coercion is vital in all areas of life – including online.

As kids grow up parents need to help them learn how to express what they do and don’t want in ways that are helpful and clear. It is important teens learn that being passive and allowing things to just happen is not always okay. Being able to stand their ground without being aggressive and rude is an important skill for young people to learn.

Skills like being able to say “no”, firmly decline an offer without being rude, walking away from a situation they don’t want to be part of, or being able to express a different opinion with confidence, are all important life skills that are part of raising healthy young people.

Teens who are equipped to be assertive in general life will be helpfully assertive online.

Kids who are bullied online are often the same as those who are bullied offline. Teens who fall victim to peer pressure online are likely to be those who give in to pressure in the physical world.

Empowering your teen to be able to express themselves clearly and confidently, and instilling in them a strong sense of personal value and self-worth will equip them to make helpful choices in all areas of life, including online.

Engage With Your Teenagers & Their Technology

I thought I would save the most obvious to last. If you want to have more confidence about parenting your teenagers in how they use technology, then use it with them and talk to them while you do it.

Mobile apps, social media sites, and messaging services are not impossible for adults to master. They are in fact pretty easy; so easy a 13-year-old can use them. If you apply yourself, you can probably master most of them.

Even better than teaching yourself, is to learn about technology with your teenager. Ask them to show you how certain apps or platforms work. Teens love teaching old people how the technology works. Play dumb and your teen will love it and want to tell you everything.

Talk with them about privacy settings, who they can and can’t share with, what are the risks associated with each app etc. It is in this context where conversations about online safety and what is and isn’t okay can happen naturally and non-confrontationally.

Sign up or download a version of a particular app or platform yourself, not for spying on your teen, but with a view to learning how the tech works. Play around with the functions and discover what makes it attractive. If appropriate, friend or follow your teen – don’t post in public on your teen’s page, but just check in every now and then to see how they are doing.

Have games nights where you play computer games with your teen. Get your teen to show you how online gaming works. Get a sense of who they are playing online and how they interact. Learn how the consoles work. Learn how to set timers, disable the internet connectivity, restrict in-game purchases etc.

The great thing about technology is you can use it too! As a parent, you can choose to educate yourself about what is out there, what is helpful, and what is not. Just to show you how easy it is I have included some links that will get your education started:

Some helpful guides:

Parents Guide to Cyberbullying

Parents Guide to Online Gaming

Parents Guide to Popular Apps

Parents Guide to Popular Messaging Apps

Parents Guide to Mobile Phones (PDF)

Some helpful sites for parents:

Connect Safely

Common Sense Media

Net Family News

The point is don’t stand back feeling helpless about your teenager’s technology use. Get involved, get familiar, and most importantly get talking to them about what they are doing online.

The Secret Is Out

There you have it, the secret to parenting teenagers and digital technology. It is pretty straightforward; don’t let the negative bias of technology trick you into feeling helpless or overly anxious, don’t focus on the technology, focus on raising sensible and responsible teenagers in all area of life including in the digital space.

Of course raising sensible and responsible teenagers isn’t always that easy, but it is a challenge you are familiar with.

If the challenge is feeling too big this blog is about making it a bit simpler, or if you need more specific advice reach out via the contact page.

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  • James Koppert Nycc

    interestingly, In the UK teenage pregnancy has fallen because kids are not going out getting drunk, they are in on their phones instead

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