July 26, 2013 —

The social landscape has dramatically changed for kids today. Gone are the days of teens sitting on their beds tying up the phone. Talking face-to-face may actually seem like a quaint notion of the past.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and texting follow them wherever they go. Communication (or miscommunication) is immediate and oftentimes full of impulsivity and instant gratification.

While I’m a huge believer in social media and admit that my own smartphone has changed my life for the better in many ways; I’m also acutely aware of the potential for misuse. Add teens to the mix and you can easily imagine (or have already experienced) how easy it is for things to go awry.

So why should we be so concerned about our teens and their online activity? Take these recent stats into consideration:

  • 93 percent of teens are online. Most of these teens take to Facebook as their social media platform of choice.
  • In 2011, one million teens were harassed, threatened, or subjected to cyberbullying on Facebook. Only 10 percent of the parents of these teens knew about it.
  • 55% of teens on Facebook gave out personal information to someone they didn’t know.
  • Only 34 percent of parents report monitoring their kids’ online activity.

So as reluctant as parents might be, we have got to join them in order to protect them. Be where they are online and discuss (and keep discussing) online safety with them.

How-to Tips:

Start the discussion early, before your tween/teen gets handed a smartphone or joins social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. A lot of kids these days are exposed to online use at a very young age with iPads, parents’ iPhones, video games, and/or iPods.

Emphasize safety by reiterating that they should never share personal information online, ever. Tell them that some people online may pretend to be someone they are not. Teach them to check in with you if ever they are in doubt. 

Draw up a contract. This will work great for your child’s first iPhone or iPod. Come up with the safety rules together and make it a team effort. This way both of you know exactly what is expected and your child knows that if the contract is broken, his online/smartphone privileges are suspended.

Emphasize the Golden Rule. Over and over again, I find myself asking my children how they would feel if x and y was done to them. The point is to get them to think about others and if they are treating them the way they would want to be treated. Never say anything hurtful, embarrassing, or personal about someone online or in a text message. These have the potential to spread like wildfire and contrary to popular teen belief, no text or Facebook post is ever “just between friends.”

Empower them. Teach your kids to speak up right away if they witness or are subjected to online cruelty. Teach them how to take screenshots of texts and/or Facebook threads so they can send them to you or a trusted adult if needed.

Join them. As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em…you know the rest. Well, in this case it’s imperative. Whatever social media sites your teen is on, be there too. Watch out Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram…here comes Mom and Dad.

Have screen-free zones and schedule media breaks. I think one of the best things we can do as parents is be good role models ourselves and actively work to moderate screen time in our daily lives. In our home, the dinner table and the bedrooms are strict no-screen zones. We use dinner time to catch up and chat about our days and make sure that prior to hitting the sack, all handheld devices are put to bed.

Last, but certainly not least, don’t be afraid to pull the plug if your child consistently breaks these rules of online engagement. It’s not easy, but in this fast-paced digital world where your teens’ online use has real world repercussions, there simply is no other choice.

Our job, as parents, is and has always been to keep them safe and healthy. Monitoring and being directly involved in their online activity is not spying, it’s parenting. And we can do it. One tweet, text, and Facebook status update at a time.

Melissa Arca, MD, FAAP is a pediatrician, mom of two, blogger and child advocate. She blogs at Confessions of a Dr. Mom and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter, too.