February 18, 2014 —

As our children grow into their teens, our concerns for them change. We stop being afraid of the stranger they might meet at the park and start worrying about the people they meet online. We no longer urge them to share their toys; rather, we encourage them to share a lot less on social media. Instead of worrying if they’re getting along with other kids on the playground, we start to wonder how they’re being treated – and treating others – in cyberspace.

These concerns are valid, but we can’t let them paralyze us. Our kids are often more fluent in technology than we are and this makes a lot of parents throw up their hands in surrender. “I just hope he’s using his head,” one mother said to me of my 14-year-old patient and his iPhone. “I’ll never know!” We can’t stop parenting just because our kids are learning a skill faster or using it more often. As they travel the virtual world, they are building lifelong communication skills, developing their characters and widening their reputations. Teenagers – no matter how tech savvy – are not equipped to do this work without our guidance.
So what can parents do?

  1. Get those passwords. Privacy (no matter what your teen may insist) is not a right. It is earned, and takes years to do so. You can require that your teen demonstrate her online integrity by letting you watch and follow as she moves through the digital world.
  2. Ask your teen for lessons. Kids love to know they have our respect, and they make worthy guides through the ins and outs of technology. Ask your child:
    • What five apps do you use most with your friends?
    • What’s the nastiest thing you’ve seen happen to someone on social media?
    • What’s the greatest thing you’ve seen or learned on social media?
    • What don’t most adults know about the most popular apps?
    • What rules should we have in place for your younger siblings to keep them safe online?
  3. Google your teen together. This can be a real eye-opener for some teens, as they see not only the reputation they are creating for themselves (which will be checked by every future employer or admissions office), but also what their friends are posting about them. Additionally, this can be very reassuring for teens - and parents - if both of you are proud of what you find in that search.

Keep the conversation going. Every time you hear about something new or have a concern, bring it to your dinner table or address it during a long drive together. Rather than making discussions about online safety and responsibility a huge event, take the pressure off with short, nonjudgmental conversations as often as possible. Technology will be a part of our lives forever. We can use it to help our teens learn respect for others, responsibility for themselves and resilience when something goes wrong.

Doctor G (Deborah Gilboa, MD) - Family Physician, international speaker, author and mom of four – is a regular contributor to CBS’ Pittsburgh Today Live and ABC’s Windy City Live. From one minute videos on making your life easier while building kids’ character to her downloadable guides (chores at every age, boundaries for tech use and more) Doctor G makes parenting more simple and more effective. When parents are effective, kids get healthier! Find her on Facebook or Twitter!