Here is December’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
My teenage son was texting on his phone constantly over Thanksgiving. I can only imagine how hard it is going to be to get him away from it over the winter break. I have no idea what he’s talking about or who he’s talking to. Sometimes he’s in his room with his laptop and phone for hours with the door locked. I’m not sure if I should sneak a peek at his phone or if that’s invading his privacy. How can I parent him around things I have no access to?
Signed, Shut Out
Dear Shut Out,
We are the first generation of parents trying to figure out what the rules are here. In our day, our friends had to call the home phone and we had to have verbal conversations, so our parents could at least hear our half of the conversation. We could only talk with one person at a time, and there wasn’t any other way to communicate, unless you passed a note in class or actually got together with your friends face to face. If we wanted to share nude photos we had to get them printed up at the local CVS first, and to view porn, we had to buy a magazine from an actual sales clerk. Today, our kids have access to millions of people, some friends, many strangers, via the internet. And they can Google any topic and get a wide array of information, pictures and videos with the click of a button (or tap or swipe of a finger…you get the point).
I recommend all parents of kids and teens supervise online/social media activity in order to make sure the use of the internet and social networking sites remains a healthy part of a teen’s life. Everyone deserves privacy. Kids and teens should have thoughts, feelings and experiences that their parents know nothing about. Online activity is not private. Even during “private” conversations like on Facebook Messenger, Instagram DirectMessage, or texting, conversations can be screenshot and shared, passwords can be shared and accounts accessed by other people. Anything you don’t want seen or shared should be said or done in person, in a private setting.
I recommend parents create a contract with their kids/teens around device use: in order to have the privilege of using a laptop/phone/i-pod/tablet, etc., parents will have all passwords to the device and apps and periodically sit down with their teen and review their device activity. I know many parents who don’t want the hassle of dealing with disgruntled teens over this, but I believe it is as basic as teaching hygiene and nutrition. We wouldn’t avoid feeding our kids, or making them shower. Don’t avoid this important part of their lives either.
Scroll through pictures, review texts, view internet browser history, review Instagram/FB/other social media activity, including private messaging. Review any concerns with your teen and calmly share thoughts, feelings, and expectations around the concerns. Share positives, too, and highlight the ways your teen is engaging with others in kind and respectful ways. Don’t hold your teen responsible for friends’ posts (i.e. don’t yell at your teen if their friend uses foul language, or bullies another teen online). Calmly share your concerns and expectations. I also recommend devices are only used in public areas and are turned in to a common area overnight. No one needs their phone in bed or the bathroom. Ever. All family members benefit from designated “No-Screen” times when everyone unplugs from devices and spends time screen-free.
Parents and teens alike should consider these criteria when interacting with others online (this includes texting, etc.):
- Would I say this to the person’s face? I mean, REALLY, would I REALLY say this in person, or would shyness, awkwardness, compassion, respect, human decency, etc. keep me from saying this?
- Would I say this to the person’s face in front of their mom/dad/child/grandma? Would I be okay if one hundred of my closest friends and enemies knew I said this?
- If I was implicated in a crime and the police investigated my online presence, would this look at all suspicious or bad to them? (I add this because so many people make threats against each other via private message thinking it’s funny/glib, but it looks awful when read by a third party. Also, teens share nude photos and in some states, teens are being prosecuted under child pornography laws, even if they are sending a picture of themselves).
- If I’m sending a picture, would I be okay with my entire school seeing this? Would I show this part of myself to not only the recipient of this text, but to everyone I know? Sexual pictures are often shared far sooner and far more easily than a teen would share nudity in person. And they are rarely kept private. Friends grab phones and share pics in seconds. Angry parents share pics found on phones with other parents. Even if your face isn’t in the picture, often there are clues in the photo that make the person identifiable.
My hope is that with these guidelines, and a clear contract, you and your teen can navigate the online world together in a way that helps him slow down, get intentional and thoughtful in all of his interactions, and helps him guard his integrity so his online activity represents him well.
I wish you and your son the best on this wild adventure,
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.