The statistics are staggering. An estimated 9,000 texts are sent by the average teen every month. You can find 80-billion videos on YouTube. And a whopping 4.2-million porn sites are accessible online.
These opportunities open the door for our teens to develop a double life. There’s one life that’s a performance for mom and dad at home. And there’s a secret insidious life online. The two are quite different.
As a parent, you may feels suspect of your child’s online behavior. Perhaps you’ve wondered, What if my teen’s gone down this path?
The Internet has become an integral part of our daily lives. It’s a fabulous tool. You don’t need me to tell you that. Most likely you have a slew of devices at your disposal to access the web. In fact, as you’re reading right now, it’s likely you’re looking at a high-tech color screen on a computer, phone or tablet. And that isn’t a bad thing! But these good tools can become dangerous when in the hands of a curious unsupervised teen.
As you know, the Internet has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. And part of a parent’s role is to stay on top of the advances. You should know about chat rooms, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else is out there. These destination sites are actually where your teen finds community, acceptance and belonging.
One of the dangerous trends involves lying about your identity online. A son or daughter may be tempted to present a fictional self. After a while, they can have a hard time differentiating between their real self and the one they have imagined. A wall forms between their real relationships and the fake ones they’ve developed online. Once this wall takes shape, it’s very difficult to break down. Every interaction that is reinforced by the fantasy world makes the wall larger.
This trend makes bullying easier to engage in, as well. If people don’t know who you truly are, then a teen feels at liberty to speak without a filter. Bullying becomes nothing than playful sport in this fantasy world. But the effects are just as bad, if not worse. Because of the impact of the connections people have online and how easily communication becomes widespread, one negative comment can have hundreds or thousands of readers. If the weight of one negative comment in the schoolyard is difficult to bear, then a digital cut-down that’s spread to the worldwide web is excruciating.
Sexting is another major problem. Teens entice one another into sending inappropriate photos back and forth over their cell phones or computers. Studies show that 13% of teen girls have sent an inappropriate picture of themselves to someone else. Most of these girls would never consider handing a printed photo to someone, but somehow the intoxication of their online personality makes sexting acceptable. And once those photos are sent out, the recipient can easily pass them around to others.
The fantasy world, bullying and sexting all come out of a kid’s desire to find acceptance. He or she can portray themselves one way online—no matter what imperfections are going on outside the computer.
So, when do you step in? How do you monitor your child’s online behavior? First of all, make sure your teenage son or daughter understands that you reserve the right to look over their shoulder at any time to see what they’re doing online. Also, make them aware that you might check on their email communication from time to time. Second, keep their computer access limited to certain times of day. And it’s always helpful to have the computer in a place in your home where they are not surfing the web and communicating with friends behind a closed door or in secret. In monitoring your kids, your intention is to keep them safe. But there’s a risk, as well, because you do not want to smother your child nor fracture your relationship.
As they grow older, you need to begin to back off from your supervision. Obviously, you cannot monitor their online habits into their adult years. Our role as parents is to help our children grow up and become adults. It’s a process, and there’s a balance in how much we intervene and how much we allow our children to have independence.
We can help our children grow through supporting them in making choices and assuming responsibility in their life. Over time, we need to wean them from our intervention. This can be tough. There will be times when you may see things that you would completely disagree with. Even when this happens, you can let your teen make the decision, but be sure to support him and give him the counsel that he needs in order to make that wise decision. It’s risky, and not easy to do, but it helps your child learn discernment. If you take away your teen’s opportunity to exercise discernment, they may lose the opportunity to learn that skill, and they may also distance themselves from you. If you don’t have a relationship with your teen, you won’t be able to influence their decisions.
Your teen needs you. There’s nothing that can take the place of a face-to-face relationship. Turn off your phone when you talk to your child. Take time together. Occasionally mention when you see something on their Facebook page. Teach discernment when your teen gets older. And the best way to teach discernment is to be discerning yourself. You are the most powerful role model that your teen will have. It’s up to you to role model the power and value of relationship.
There are differences between how girls and guys react to this issue. Rachel, a counselor who works alongside me at the residential counseling program, Heartlight, shares how she has seen teens struggle with their perception of what is real and what isn’t during the teen years. During our weekend broadcast of Parenting Today’s Teens, we’ll talk with Rachel about practical ways that you can help your child maintain his identity throughout his life, especially when faced with the opportunity to develop dual identities through an online persona.
The digital e-book My Teen and the Internet is available online at www.parentingtodaysteens.org
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.
Mark will be coming to St. Louis, MO on March 8th and to Parker, CO on March 10th. Go to www.TurbulenceAhead.org for more information.