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Teenagers on the Internet: Parents Need to Be Involved

By Maria Fuentes - 3rd February 2011

So the research is in and it tells us that social networking can be a positive influence on teenagers’ lives.

Valkenburg and Peters, from the University of Amsterdam reviewed ten years of research into Internet use by teenagers and concluded that social networking sites increased positive internet use amongst healthy teenagers and enhanced their social functioning.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Teenagers are risk prone, and although they are moving towards adulthood, they are not there yet. In the past, parents have been (for better or worse) better positioned to define their children’s social boundaries up until a much later age than is now possible, and this opens up a whole lot of possibilities, the outcome of which is sometimes hard to see.

So to help parents navigate the challenges presented by online social networking, I have prepared a few ideas that I hope may help you.

Things to understand about the internet and social networking:

•    If you want to avoid it, move to a an uninhabited island with no access to WiFi (good luck finding one).

•    The internet and social networking is a part of our world and it’s the job of the parents and supporting organisations to teach children and adolescents how to use it. Therefore, may I suggest that, if you are a parent or teacher, it’s a very good idea to use the internet and explore how social networking sites work.

•    Make the time to get involved in the sites like Facebook, Skype, and Twitter and be surprised when complete strangers approach you; you may then understand what your teen means when he says he was tagged, someone posted a comment, or blocked him.

•    Understand what chatting online is and where it can be done (for example, did you know that many online games allow participants to chat to other anonymous players?)

•    Take a look at Tumblr, Digg, Flicker, My Space or any other sites that your teenagers mention and get a feel for what other people do on these sites.

Thanks to the digital age, behaviour that may in the past have been exposed to just a few people is now so easily made part of the public domain that we must teach our kids how to protect themselves from it. I think the following lessons must be tattooed into your children’s brain from as early an age as they can take it.

•    NEVER share your passwords with anybody, no matter how good friends you are or how much you love him or her. A relationship status is easier to change than a password and identity theft is no longer only about getting into your credit account; it’s also about impersonating someone on chat or other social media, and this can lead to all sorts of trouble, up to and including police involvement.

•    Once it’s out there on the internet, information is accessible and may even belong to anyone who finds it. I have often been caught off guard by a teenager’s surprise and indignation that other people are reading what they have posted on Facebook.

•    If someone has a digital or even a hard copy picture of you, you’d better be happy with that picture being everywhere on the internet by tonight; you never know.

•    Never ever post any information on a social networking site that may be used to track you down, such as your address, phone number, email, school name, extra-curricular activities, etc.

Most importantly remember this, social media is “social” - it’s not good or bad, but how you use it can make all the difference. For all the criticism that Facebook gets about privacy, you’ll find that you and your teenager can control who sees what reasonably well. As a parent, please make sure you take the time to set up your child’s (who must be over 14 years old) Facebook account properly with them. Digital social networking is a part of our everyday life and represents an another way of interacting – it is not the end of human contact but a new addition. Some of the benefits are:

•    By being friends with people online, we can maintain a more constant dialogue with people, and have people who would not otherwise be so, as a positive psychological presence in our lives.
•    Access to social media can aid in social activism (help to support or create a cause)
•    Social networks allow you to share important information in a fast and reliable way
•    Social networking can allow you to become a more active part of the social discourse
•    And last but not least, if you involved in social media you have the opportunity to share in the social zeitgest of the day.

Bottom line, parents should think about getting involved – it’s another dimension of parenting teenagers but it can’t be avoided.

Editor's Note: Michael Carr-Gregg has written Real Wired Child - What Parents Need to Know about Kids Online

image Louisa Stokes

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