March 11, 2015 —

Recently, I sat with a group of teen leaders in a tech health workshop at their school. We were talking about pressure – social, academic, family, athletics, personal choices – the stuff that often occupies the lives and minds of high school teens and their families. Deliberately, the conversation made its way to the impact technology has on all of this. We talked about the joys and the challenges of technology. What we love, what we celebrate, what makes life easier, entertaining, fun and fascinating. We talked about the challenges, the distractions and dangers, the constant connection and common confusion. Did she mean to say it like that? Why is he ignoring me? Did they purposely not invite me? Why did she post that pic? Sometimes these questions and feelings go underground, buried in the endless scrolls and scanning of various social media feeds and are never discussed. Sometimes they blow up into arguments – verbal or silent – and become bigger than necessary, because the expression of a social sting can play out differently for everyone.

As parents, educators and people that love, guide and care for teenagers, we don’t need to be tech experts. We don’t need to have a tech degree or be a master coder to understand the way technology impacts the lives of young people. But we do need a level of engagement – or digital fluency – to fully understand the impact, both positive and negative, of social technology on teens. If we think of ourselves as teenagers, or think of the specific personality or tendencies of our children, then we can consider the social and emotional consequences of constant connection. Our teens are hardly ever away from their peers. They are often linked together at mealtime, throughout the night, at sporting events, while on family vacations, during the school day, in the bathroom and even while hanging out with other friends. And this social media sharing and following is not just with their close circle of friends. It is far-reaching across different ages, genders, school districts, siblings and even online “friends” they have never actually met in person. There are profiles to create, pictures to share, group and private conversations to have, public displays of affection (whole new meaning of PDA!), people and places to like, the list goes on and on. It takes a real and genuine effort to keep up with it all. Technology is central to their social lives. And they need us to know it.

Though this may seem overwhelming to the modern day parent, we cannot ignore its existence. We must make a commitment to understand it – not just how it works – but how it works for our child. How does she use it? What does he like about it? How will it impact her decisions? Is his online personality consistent with his offline personality? How can I help? Just as we provide instruction and guidance with social relationships away from the screens, we need to be able to provide that same level of support to the screens. This approach will allow us to fully parent, educate and engage with teens in today’s world. Full recognition, communication and appreciation of technology from respected adults will build a bridge with your teen. It will help create positive experiences and encourage tech health.

Janell Burley Hofmann is an author, speaker and consultant on topics like technology, media, health, relationships and personal growth. Janell is the author of the book, iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up. She has also presented at TEDx San Diego with a talk titled “Parenting in the Screen Age”. Janell has worked with schools, shelters, families, educators, children and teens while offering private parent coach, business and community consultations. Janell’s professional expertise and personal experience as a mother of five children builds strong connections with a wide and varied population. Janell engages readers, clients and audiences in relevant and meaningful conversations igniting personal empowerment, awareness and purpose in a partnership that will positively impact all. You can connect with Janell on her blog, Facebook, Twitter and Google+.