Do you know what your teen is doing online?

  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 11 May 2016

A study finds that 71% of teens hide online behaviour from their parents.. ©Monkey Business Images/ Special uses WEB Only


The half-second or so it took you to read that word could be all it takes to ruin a reputation – or worse. 

Here are two other words that drive home the point: Jessica Logan. In one of the first highly publicised cases of the dark side of "sexting," Logan is the 18-year-old Ohio teen who killed herself in 2008. 

And it all started with a nude photo Logan texted to her boyfriend. He forwarded the photo to friends, and the image spread throughout Logan's school. 

Logan endured social humiliation and sexual harassment. Two months after graduating, she hanged herself in her room. 

With virtual teen outposts popping up regularly, trying to stay on top of what your teen is doing online has become, for parents, very daunting. 

Have you heard of Omegle? You know, the chat site and app that puts strangers together in their choice of a text chat or video chat room? 

Or how about Whisper, the app that allows users to post messages paired with an image anonymously – and later exchange personal contact info in the "Meet Up" section? 

These sites and apps aren't inherently evil. But used irresponsibly, they can lead to bad things. As many teenagers develop online lives – much of them in secret – parents are charged with the task of mitigating negative outcomes. 

You can become the overly protective and paranoid online cop and demand your teen stay away from certain sites and apps (good luck with that). Or you can be the overly permissive parent who allows your teens to explore sites and apps at will. 

Both approaches, experts say, could have dire consequences. The most productive path, they say, lies somewhere between the extremes. 

"The balance we want to create is one of keeping our kids safe and allowing them to learn important lessons that prepare them for autonomy," said Newport Beach, California,-based psychologist Julie Orris, director of the adolescent Dialectical Behaviour Therapy program at CBT California. 

"If we over-supervise social media, they will never learn how to manage this independently," Orris said. "If we under-supervise, they may be more at risk for serious harm. That is why I advise parents to pay attention." 

Why online? 

Teens use social media as part of identity exploration and as a way to connect with peers or like-minded adults, Orris said. 

"Most of the teenagers I work with are most interested in applications like Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and Tumblr," she said. "They enjoy keeping in regular contact with people they relate to – it allows for an increased sense of belonging and connection to others." 

On such sites, teens can be seen and validated, Orris noted. "They can post quotes, pictures, videos, thoughts, beliefs and events to say, 'This is me' and get immediate feedback from followers," she said. 

"For many teenagers, this is quality-of-life-enhancing and they achieve their goal of becoming more connected to others, and they may even gain confidence." 

Cynthia Baker, a child psychologist in Newport Beach, California, has noticed how many teens have gravitated to Snapchat. 

"It's quick, easy and requires no editing," Baker said. "The idea of sharing a goofy photo or off-the-cuff short video appeals to teens. Teens also feel less social pressure when using Snapchat over Facebook or Instagram." 

In Snapchat, photos or videos can appear for only a few seconds to a selected audience of friends, or to the public, depending on your selected settings. 

It's developmentally necessary for teens to engage in exploration and experimentation, even mild risk-taking, Baker said. 

"Teens also try out different self-identities to figure out who they are and what kind of adult they want to eventually be," Baker said. "And to do these things, it's developmentally necessary for teens to have private conversations with peers, and thoughts and feelings not shared with adults in their lives." 

Of course, Baker added, the use of social media in this stage of adolescent exploration, experimentation and identity formation changes the game considerably. 

Sexting 101 

Sexting refers to sending or receiving sexually explicit or sexually suggestive images, messages or videos via a cellphone or the internet. Studies peg the number of teens who sext at about one in four. 

Jeff Temple of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston said in a study in October 2014 that sexting appears to be an indicator of general sexual activity (as opposed to risky sexual behaviour) and thus it "may be a new 'normal' part of adolescent sexual development." 

Sexting isn't new, Temple wrote – but the numerous online media on which it is taking place are. 


Sabrina Feldman of Costa Mesa is the mother of two boys, ages 16 and 18. 

She said she hasn't had a problem with her boys sexting, and believes they use social media responsibly. One big reason? She had numerous discussions with them before they became active on social media. 

"It's really important that the subject of what can happen online be brought up early in life," Feldman said. "Trying to get them to understand the dangers of it should be the focus of all parents and teachers. Just nagging them won't work." 

Experts agree. They say having open conversations about personal responsibility, personal boundaries and how to resist peer pressure should happen throughout your child's upbringing – not just in the context of using social media. 

As for sexting, it's crucial to make sure your teen realizes some key realities. 

Sexting can get you into serious trouble – teens who have naked photos of other teens on their phones or computers can be charged with child pornography possession. 

"Sexually promiscuous photo sharing can also get you expelled from school and can ruin a teen's reputation in minutes, not only at his school but all the surrounding neighbourhood schools," Baker said. "This is emotionally devastating for these teens." 

Nothing online is private – Dr Larissa Hirsch, medical editor of KidsHealth, teaches kids to follow the WWGT rule – What would Grandma think? "If Grandma shouldn't see it," Hirsch wrote, "they shouldn't send it." 

Monitor your teen's social media usage. Feldman has a rule in her house: No computers in the bedroom. She believes sexting typically occurs late at night. 

Ask for your teen's passwords and "friend" your teen on social media sites, advised Baker. Check his phones, tablets and computers often, she said. 

Baker agrees with Feldman. "I encourage parents to never allow kids to have their phones in their rooms at night past a certain time, say 9 or 10 pm, when they should be getting ready to go to sleep for the night," she said. 

Orris said that if your teen doesn't show any signs of high-risk behaviour (e.g., substance abuse, self-harm, risky sexual behaviour, frequent changes in friend groups, changes in school performance, etc.), you may not need to monitor every move. 

"And good luck trying to do that anyway," Orris said. 

Most importantly, Baker said, parents need to continue to develop a deep, trusting relationship with their teens so their child feels safe to talk with them – especially when they make a mistake. 

"If your child makes a mistake in how they use social media (by commenting inappropriately on someone else's post or posting something inappropriate or even sexual in nature), if you react by yelling or just taking away social media access without processing the event, your child will just learn that you expect them to be perfect and he or she won't come talk with you next time they mess up," Baker said. 

"And you always want your child to come talk with you." — The Orange County Register/Tribune News Service

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