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A Teen’s Life Online

Student Story: Mackenzie

Teens today are the most tech-savvy and plugged-in generation ever! Social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are an integral part of their way of life. So, how can we put healthy boundaries around digital usage? This weekend on Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston gives a sobering overview of the dangers online and shares reasonable limits that parents can set.

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Setting Boundaries With Your Teen

I really like homemade waffles—especially when they’re topped with real butter, Canadian maple syrup, fruit, a pile of nuts… and more waffles. I’m serious as a heart attack about that. But while I love waffles, I hate waffling. And I’m pretty sure God is not big on that either. In James 1:8, we learn that a “double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” And in Matthew 5:37, we read: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

This holds true for how we parent our children as well. That’s why when you set boundaries for your kids and teens, you had better make sure that you stick to your guns on whatever boundaries and rules that you’ve set for your family. This includes implementing pre-determined consequences for breaking those rules.

Rules Rule!

No one likes the word “rules.” It sounds—well restrictive. Yet who would argue the need for rules in a court of law, a school classroom, or just about any sport? Without rules, it would be an “anything goes” free-for-all! I’ve got to tell you… I hate stop signs and traffic lights… but I wouldn’t want to live without them.

Raising a family requires rules, too. Children need and want boundaries. The world makes more sense when they know what’s accepted and what’s not. Children feel safer when boundaries are explained and defined. And they find comfort in the consistency of parents who stick to their game plan.

If You Don’t Make the Rules, Someone Else Will

Make no mistake; you absolutely, unequivocally need a parenting game plan. Because if you don’t have rules in place, the world will. And without your rules to follow, they will follow the culture or a peer group that could lead to life-shattering issues. The culture is constantly telling our children they aren’t enough, trying to get them to eat, drink, party and even spend their way into acceptance. Kids often lose their true selves due to social pressures, opting to morph into whatever is popular or acceptable to their peer group. Many teens end up in a personal identity crisis in high school or even middle school, medicating with alcohol, drugs, sex, and other addictions.

So, how do you as parents keep your children from falling prey to these challenges to their true identity? It takes lots of prayer, unconditional love and clearly defined rules. Rules with relationship—because rules without relationship cause rebellion. And the most important relationship your child can ever have on this earth is with you. You—not their peers—need to be their most important role model. They need to have your love and acceptance, and home has to be a safe place for them to land each day after school. They need to know that your rules are designed for their best and that as their parent they can trust and rely on you at all times. And they need to see you living out your life and your faith in an authentic way. You can model being true to yourself, giving them the courage and permission to be real and true to themselves. Your home will then become a place that builds intimacy through love, humility and honesty. With this model, you’ll have a lot less need to exert external controls. Why? Because they’ll want what you have.

Rules for Cyber City

But until they are adults, your children need you to keep external controls in place. As I already stated, kids needs boundaries to feel secure. Take the area of setting boundaries for social media use—a big concern for parents today, and rightly so.

How many times have we heard news stories about pre-teens and teens getting into trouble on the Internet via some form of social media? Increasingly, this trouble is turning deadly. It did for Amanda Todd. At age 15, Amanda committed suicide after years of cyber bullying. She was just eleven-years old when it all began. First, she became a victim of a Facebook predator/blackmailer, and then fellow classmates bullied her—both verbally and physically. Inappropriate photos of herself— that she posted in an impulsive moment —followed her everywhere. No matter how many times she changed schools, she could not escape the torment.

In a televised interview with Amanda’s mother, it was clear that she had no clue as to what her daughter was up to all those years. There Amanda was, alone in her room with unlimited, unrestricted, 24/7 Internet access. She would stare into the video cam with endless fascination and at all hours of the night. When her mother told her that she couldn’t have the video cam, she whined and pouted to the point where her mother finally waffled and gave in. “I lost that fight” she later lamented with deep regret in her voice.

When I was Seventeen, I “Unfriended” My Parents

Honestly, it is all so preventable—if as parents you set boundaries and rules early on for your teens. And then stick to those rules. Drawing lines in the sand, and re-drawing them, and re-drawing them again is pointless as your teen will use your weakened resolve against you. Whatever respect you might have had from them, can be lost completely.

The following is just one example of how an increasing level of earned trust, in the form of setting boundaries, might go down in the area of social media use. (You can read more examples in my book, Tough Guys and Drama Queens.)

  • When you’re 12 years old, you won’t be able to have a social media page—be it Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever.
  • When you’re 13 and 14, you can have an account, but you can only check it once a day for 30 minutes (not 30 minutes for each one). We’ll have full access to all your posts, tweets, etc. You must “friend’ us on your Facebook so we’ll know what your posting.
  • When you’re 15, you can spend one hour a day on social media as long as it doesn’t take away from family time, completing your homework, or keeping you up so late that you can’t get up on your own in the morning. Oh … and we’re still watching!
  • When you’re 16, no more than two hours on social media and make sure that your language is appropriate.
  • When you’re 17, it’s all yours. We’re no longer watching. You can “unfriend” us.
  • When you’re 18, I hope that you’ll accept my “friend” request.

My purpose here in giving you this example is not to turn you into a clone of myself and my own parenting style—rather to give you an idea, or model of what it might look like. I can only tell you that these boundaries have worked well for myself as a parent.

Well Behaved Kids or Healthy Adults?

But again, you need to first have a well-defined worldview. Only then can you add clear boundaries and subtract strictness. In other words, your goal is not to have well-behaved kids, but well-adjusted and spiritually mature adults who have learned how to flesh out their faith in a rapidly changing society. You want them to shine as lights in a dark world. And the only way they can do this, is if you (1) allow your children to be exposed to opposing worldviews while they are still under your influence, (2) to lovingly speak truth to them when they’re exposed to error and (3) to be a strong voice of reason and wisdom.

In short, if you do your “God job” as a parent right, you’ll make that “forbidden fruit” (worldly enticements) as appealing to your teen as a rotten banana—because, after all, home and hearth is where the homemade waffles are!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.


Internet Safety for Teens

In the 60’s, Christian parents were outraged over the “shocking” youth culture.  However, parents today may wish for the “good old 60’s and 70’s,” because on all levels, kids today are into far worse stuff, thanks mostly to the Internet.

Who would have ever thought that the Internet would beat out television and movies as the most time-consuming form of entertainment for teens?  It has! 96% of all teens in the U.S. daily access the Internet, averaging more than four hours online every day.  It now affects every family in some way, since it can be accessed in many more ways than it once could, and it is being used by teens in ways that may shock some less Internet-savvy parents.  So, it is especially important for parents to know how their kids are interacting via digital media today, while also understanding that completely removing it isn’t always the best move.

The Breadth of the Problem 

A lot of good can be gleaned from the Internet and from use of today’s digital tools like cell phones.  The Internet is a powerful research and teaching tool.  It has become the main source for news, new music and it will eventually become the main source for books and movies.  Through cell phones, parents are able to keep in touch with their kids wherever they are, and kids can text each other.  And through video tools like Skype and social networking sites, teens and extended families can connect with each other in important and extraordinary ways.

But along with all the good, comes the bad…

Pornography (4.3 million porn sites) and suggestive invitations to participate in pornography are prevalent on the Internet and not easy to miss. Web surfers see inappropriate pictures or videos even if they aren’t necessarily looking for them and there is no cost barrier, since millions of photos are provided free.  While the porn industry has been around since the beginning of painting and photography, the Internet and digital cameras on cell phones are making it so that just about anyone can become involved in uploading their own sexualized photos as well.  As a result, no age group is more involved in digital pornography than teenagers. It has become so widespread and accepted in their culture, kids no longer see anything wrong with it.

What gets the most attention on the Internet are the images with the greatest shock value.  In other words, the most shockingly immoral or dangerous videos or photos are the most sought for and passed around.  Kids surf the Internet seeking titillating images to pass on to their friends. And many are making and uploading their own photos and videos.  As a result, every form of experimentation, from drugs to sex are openly discussed, taught, demonstrated and encouraged on the Internet today.

When kids get online and participate in what they would never think of doing in person I call it “digital courage.”  As a result, guys are getting a warped image of girls, what girls want from boys, and what boys should expect from girls. Girls are given messages that if you don’t present yourself in a sexualized way, then you won’t get noticed.  And both sexes are getting warped ideas about same-sex relationships. It’s a culture fueled by permissive messages that make it okay to be blatant about sex and silly to care about modesty.  And what’s happening online, in a fantasy world, is making its way into the real world for these kids when they spend hours engulfed in it daily.

I don’t think parents quite understand the tremendous amount of pressure that this emphasis on seduction places especially on impressionable teen and pre-teen girls. They are forced to choose between doing what is socially acceptable in their own circles and what is acceptable among their family and church.  More often than not, the social pressure to fit in outweighs their desire to be modest and follow what they’ve been taught.  Girls who’ve grown up in church may therefore begin to present themselves in ways that are not in line with the values they have learned.

Beyond the moral influences, kids fail to understand the potential practical consequences for what they carelessly post online.  For instance, the United States government announced years ago that every word “tweeted” on the largest social networking site, Twitter, is being recorded for permanent public storage by the Library of Congress.  It means that messages and images can be recalled many years from now.  Why is that an issue? For one thing, many employers and some colleges now research what applicants have been saying or posting online, since what they find there is a good indicator of the motivations and attitudes of the applicant. Educational and career choices may be hindered by the careless words or pictures your teen is posting.

Solutions No More 

It used to be that filters on your home computer could be used to block inappropriate sites, but that’s an incomplete solution today.  Parents have a bigger issue on their hands now, with the advent of wireless and handheld computers, iPads, iPhones, PDA’s and smart cell phones. Kids can get online just about anywhere, not just at home where it can be monitored. Not only are there more wireless ways to connect, 77% of kids access the Internet at school or the library, where there may be no filters at all.

According to Pew Research, 40% of all teens use the digital cameras on their own cell phones or computers to send sexual photos or “send sexual texts — a practice called “sexting.” Even if your teenager isn’t “sexting” themselves, photos and sexualized comments from other kids are being passed to them.

What’s a Parent to Do?

Parents need to realize that it is becoming nearly impossible to keep kids away from the bad stuff on the Internet. That’s why they should begin talking to their children in the tween years (by age 9) about the inappropriateness of pornography. Talk in age-appropriate terms, being careful not to spark interest in it or to make it appear that all kids are involved in it.  Revisit the topic periodically, since your teen’s thoughts and motivations will change over time. Regularly ask questions in your one-on-one weekly meeting, like, “What so you think is appropriate and inappropriate to see or talk about on the Internet or in texts.”  Be very wise in the way that you approach it so that you don’t push your child away.  Listen more than you speak and never embarrass them.

Your child is likely on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook (now for old folks), and SnapChat, so you better make sure you are on there as well.  There’s nothing like knowing that your parent may see what you say or the photos you post.  It keeps them in line.  Tell them that they must “friend” you, so you can monitor what they and their other friends are posting.  But don’t respond to their posts online or otherwise bring embarrassment to them in front of their friends. Just use it for monitoring and discuss what you find there with them personally.

Getting It Under Control 

It is important to keep in mind that all rules for use of the Internet in your home must be adapted to the age of your child and his or her responsibility level. With that being said, here are some tips for parents to get the Internet under control:

  1. PASSWORD POLICY:  Make it a home policy that parents must know all electronic passwords. This gives access if needed. Have access to their social networking account for your monthly monitoring (or don’t allow them on any network site if they can’t be responsible).   Add yourself to their “friend” list to be able to roam around on their site. Make sure their profile is “private,” so that only their approved “friends” can communicate with them.  A little monitoring goes a long way. If they refuse, disconnect their Internet access and texting on their cell phone.
  1. TRACKING:   Take advantage of parental controls offered by wireless communication companies, but also install silent tracking software and let it do its work to help you know what sites they are visiting.  Most kids learn to quickly get around blocking software and the so-called “parental controls,” but they cannot usually defy software that tracks their every keystroke.
  1. ACCESS:  Keep Internet accessible devices out of your teen’s bedroom. Keep them out in an open area with the monitor visible from various angles.  Don’t allow access unless you are in the room, and put a limit on the amount of time they may spend on the Internet.  If you have wireless in your home, shut it down after hours and when your teen is alone at home.  If your teen has a smart phone that can access Internet sites or receive photos, then have them turn it over to you before going to bed.
  1. REVIEW:  On their computer, periodically view their Internet “browser history” and follow the trail. You will be amazed; software is available to secretly record their every move if needed, especially if you think they are accessing the Internet overnight or when you are not home.
  1. READ:  Tell your teen that for the privilege of texting on their cell phone, you will periodically ask to see that they’ve been texting.  Tell them that they mustn’t erase text messages, or that will be an assumed admission of guilt. Then, do unannounced spot checks several times per month. Don’t use it as an opportunity to seek proof of other offences, but simply spot check for inappropriate messages or photos. Then, talk to your teen about what you find.

Find out who they are chatting with online. Many times, the people on the other end aren’t who they portray themselves to be, so keep your teen out of the open chat rooms.  Be especially careful if you think your teen may be interacting with an Internet stalker.  If you find anyone you don’t know asking to meet your teen boy or girl alone somewhere, immediately report it to the police.

  1. LOGIN:  Get on their social networking home page and look around.  Look at their friends.  See what they’re saying.  Look at what is being said to them.  Go visit their friend’s pages.  You might just find out something about your child that would be a perfect intro into some great conversations.
  1. TALK, AND THEN TALK SOME MORE:  If you find something inappropriate on a cell phone or computer, privately talk to your child.  Make it something you agree to both get together to talk about periodically.  Don’t accuse them and assume the worst.  All teens — especially boys — are curious about adult things and they want to see what their friends are suggesting they see.  So, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.  You’ll be amazed how your child will respond when you speak with a gentle spirit, not one of condemnation and guilt.  You’ll be glad you found the issue before it got too big in the child’s life. Catching it early will often prevent it from becoming a life-long addiction.

I believe in privacy. I believe in trust. But I also believe in “being there” to be the parent God has called me to be. If I see anything that concerns me, then it must be brought into the open with the teen, shared, and discussed. I tell kids that I sleep with one eye open. I’m always looking for something that has the potential to destroy a relationship with them and with God.  I tell them that I’m looking out for them because I don’t want any unwelcome thing to intrude into their life.

It’s Up to You 

Monitoring your teen’s Internet use can be a lot of added work, but I believe that parents should go to no end to find out what their teen is into and who they are connecting with online, especially if it begins affecting their attitudes and behaviors.  That portal to the outside world needs monitoring. After all, would you let just anyone, even a registered sex offender or pornographer, into your house to befriend your teen?  Of course not.  The hold that an outsider may have on your teenage girl, or the hold that pornography may have on a teenage boy, may ultimately harm both them and your family. Your teen will be too embarrassed to reveal it, so it’s up to you to find out and take action.

Helping your teen become more discerning in how they surf or text on the Internet is now more important than older tactics of simply blocking teens from it. They’ll find other ways to access the Internet, whether at school or in their friend’s homes or using their friend’s cell phone or laptop computer. So, teaching them to be discerning will give kids the skills they need in a culture where it is nearly impossible for a parent to completely block them from accessing it.

Moms and dads all over the country express great frustration to me with how to positively encounter their teen living in a seductive, visually oriented, and digitally bombarded world.  The answer to their questions is always that they have to do something, rather than doing nothing.  Online and texting parameters must be set, communicated, and adhered to.  And it must be a set of parameters that are monitored, revisited and discussed often.  Remember this… rules without monitoring aren’t rules at all, just blind suggestions.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.