How Can I Keep My Teenager Safe Online?

by Jasmine Tatum BS and Timothy Rice MD

CC0 Public DomainSource: CC0 Public Domain

For parents raising teenagers today, the digital universe can seem terrifying. Headlines of online sexual predators and dangerous social media challenges , such as the Tide Pod challenge, have parents asking themselves, “How can I give my kids the independence they need to develop into young adults while protecting them from cyberbullies, predators, inappropriate content, and poor decision making?” And with 95 percent of teens accessing the internet 24/7 from their smart phones, parents today are right to be worried.

The importance of independence

Contemporary teenagers form relationships over the internet, sometimes never meeting these friends in person. Many parents find it difficult to let their teens form their own relationships because they are so concerned about protecting them from negative influences. With increased internet access, these negative influences are far reaching and difficult to control.

However, teenagers need independence in order to develop their identities. Bodies are changing, questions such as, “Who am I?” and, “What kind of person do I want to be?” arise. Friends can often become more important than family. Through social groups, the teenager is able to navigate a world that is contradictory and complex. Parents hope their teenager won’t make the wrong choices. The internet has made this even more challenging for parents.

Making mistakes

During this period teenagers often make mistakes. Teens should not only be allowed to make mistakes, but should be encouraged to be easy on themselves when that happens. Knowing that they can manage the consequences of their actions can help them begin to trust their own judgment.

Live a little greener. Show your kids how easy it is to care for the environment. Waste less, recycle, reuse, and conserve each day. Spend an afternoon picking up trash around the neighborhood.

However, some mistakes can have serious and/or irrevocable consequences.

For example, Dawn’s parents were alarmed when they saw semi-nude photos of her posted on Instagram. When they asked her about this, she replied that many of her friends were posting similar photos and it was no big deal.

If parents are worried that their teen may be engaging in online behavior that they cannot fully manage, it is important that they not only discuss their concerns with their teens, but also make sure to stay involved. Asking simple questions about who their teens interact with online and what they do on social media are some ways parents can stay informed. Another way parents can observe their teen’s behaviors online is by request to follow, or “friend” their teen on social media.

Serious Concerns

The line between demonstrating appropriate attention, and concern on the one hand, and intrusiveness on the other, is sometimes unclear. Teens often push away pointed questions and make it difficult for parents to pursue their inquiry of potentially dangerous behavior. But it can also be a mistake NOT to intervene.

Dan, a 15- year old boy, has become fascinated with death. He joined an on-line “death café” chatroom. When Dan left his computer open and his parents saw these conversations, they were alarmed. They confronted him, but he insisted that this was all fantasy and speculation. He very much enjoyed communicating with other people his age who were also fascinated with death. What should these parents do?

Reduce the pace. Speak with your child in an unhurried way, pausing frequently. Wait a few seconds after your child finishes before you begin to speak. Your own easy relaxed speech will be far more effective than any advice such as “slow down” or “try it again slowly. For some children, it is also helpful to introduce a more relaxed pace of life for awhile.

Warning signs

Parents can gain a lot of information by just observing their teen’s behavior to determine whether their online interaction is problematic. Warning signs include:

  • losing or gaining a lot of weight
  • difficulties sleeping
  • skipping school or performing poorly in school
  • spending a lot of time alone
  • talking about suicide
  • getting into trouble with the law

If any of these signs are present, it is important that parents talk to their teens with firmness and perhaps enlist the help of a trained mental-health professional. Clinicians with training in child and adolescent psychodynamic or psychoanalytic therapy can be of great help with these challenges to a teen’s healthy development.

Communication is key

Communication is essential in order to ensure that adolescents are making responsible decisions online. It is important for parents to able to talk to teenagers in order to remain close and connected and to help them develop better judgment and to make better decisions. One way of opening the conversation is to show interest in this world of the internet to which your teen is probably more expert than you are.

The following strategies can help parents engage in conversations where teens feel heard and understood:

Always tell the truth. It's how you want your child to behave, right?

  • listen and do not interrupt
  • ask questions to better understand the situation
  • show empathy and imagine what it is like to be in your teenager’s shoes
  • avoid criticizing or ridiculing ideas or feelings
  • validate emotions and/or thoughts shared during the discussion
  • do not pressure for information
  • be willing to learn something new from your teenager

Encouraging teens to explore the internet does not mean abandoning them. On the contrary, giving teenagers more space often results in greater emotional presence and attunement. Parents need to remain involved and aware as their teenagers embark on new experiences and adopt new personalities.

The world is a different place now than it was when you were a teen. Try to remain open-minded and be curious and willing to learn about that new world!

About the Authors :

Jasmine Tatum graduated from Princeton University with Highest Honors in Psychology. She is currently a fourth year medical student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and is pursuing a residency in Psychiatry.

Timothy Rice, MD is an adult and child and adolescent psychiatrist in practice in New York, NY. He is currently the co-chair of the World Federation of Societies of Biological Psychiatry’s Task Force on Men’s Mental Health, where he focuses on safety and risk factor reduction with male children, adolescents, and young men. He is a member of the Association for Child Psychoanalysis, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as well as the American Psychoanalytic Association, where he is Chair of the Child Advocacy Committee. His professional and research interests include the promotion of health and well-being in youth populations.