By Christian Brink
When I was younger, going online meant sitting down at the family computer, making sure no one was using the land-line telephone, and logging on via a dial-up connection that was loud enough to alert everyone in the house I was about to use the Internet. But for many of today’s teens, going online involves a different process.
For starters, it means mobile access. According to a recent study by Pew, 78 percent of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half of those are smartphones. In addition, close to 74 percent of kids age 12-17 say they access the Internet via cell phones, tablets and other mobile devices. What are the implications for teens and their parents? Well, teens are getting increased access to information, entertainment and communication with friends—anytime and anywhere. And among the many benefits of mobile technology, it’s a great first step toward their independence and the building and maintaining of an online reputation.
But for parents, it raises yet another daunting child-rearing question. The challenge, though, is to view a child’s digital development not as a danger to be feared but instead as an opportunity to be fostered. That said, parents need to recognize the full reach of mobile access and realize that handing over a smartphone without first having a conversation about the device is a bit like giving your children the car keys before they’ve taken a driver’s education class.
Now, I’m all for learning on the go and I’m a firm believer in mistakes as great teachable moments, but, with the plethora of social networking and messaging apps and the overwhelming amount of content and information being shared online, parents need to know that some initial guidance is needed to ensure safe, responsible and informed use.
What’s important to remember next time you see your child with his or her smartphone?
First, open up the lines of communication. Be intentional about talking with your children about their use of technology, making sure they know they can come to you with questions, concerns or even something they are just generally excited about. You know who their friends are (or at least the majority) in real life, right? Then why not get to know the friends your teen is talking to online. If your teen comes to you with something he’s uncomfortable about, try your best to not overreact, to figure out what went wrong and how best to avoid the situation in the future.
Second, as you tell your kids to be responsible users of technology, or good digital citizens, also lead by example. For instance, don’t answer email at the dinner table and then give your child grief for texting during the next family outing. The same goes for texting and driving. Just because you’re comfortable behind the wheel doesn’t mean you should be using your phone while driving. And when it comes to social media, or even email (which may sound archaic to your tween or teen), promote positive and respectful interactions, just as you would with people you talk to face-to-face.
Third, and perhaps most important, reinforce “Think before you post.” This is a common pitfall for many young users (and is what often makes headlines). Not always the most forward thinking, teens may post pictures or comments that could hurt them in the future with college or job applications. So, make sure they ask themselves, before they put anything online, if it’s something they really want others to see or know about them. To learn more about maintaining a healthy online reputation, check out our digital footprint checklist.
Today’s young adults have incredible possibilities ahead of them with technology. There are tools to help them pursue their interests and teach themselves new skills (like learning how to code), communities for them to join and more. They just need good instruction to get started. And, while a lot of valuable learning comes from peer to peer through shared experiences, nothing replaces the guidance of a parent or other trusted adult.
So, when you’re out buying your teen a smartphone, or when you see your teen texting, tweeting, snap-chatting, posting to Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook or whatever new network they’ve discovered, remember that it all plays a role in shaping their digital identity. With the right instruction, example and reinforcement, your child can use the resources of the ever-evolving world online to learn and grow.
Christian Brink is the project assistant at the Family Online Safety Institute, an international, nonprofit organization working to make the online world safer for kids and their families. As a believer in technology as a tool for positive change, he hopes to empower parents, teachers and teens with the resources they need to responsibly navigate the digital world and make a difference.