Snapchat, Instagram, Whisper, Twitter, Vine… online trends change rapidly. Teens and tweens use social media to communicate with peers naturally and with ease. Meanwhile, their parents can feel mystified by the technology and may wonder how to possibly understand this virtual world. Here are five tips from Amori Mikami, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, on how parents can stay involved and aware of their teenagers’ online social communication.
1. Keep an open mind.
Research shows that most young people who have healthy, positive face-to-face friendships are using social media to communicate with those same friends, and are doing so in supportive, rewarding, and appropriate ways. That is, they are using the new online technologies in the same ways that they normally communicate in face-to-face situations. These online interactions are helping teenagers gain social skills and strengthen friendships. In other words, online interactions for most teenagers, like face-to-face interactions, are a healthy, positive part of their social world.
2. Listen to your teenager.
In order to find out more about your teenager’s online interactions, ask open ended questions in a nonjudgmental tone of voice. Try not to say “You spend too much time online. Who are you talking to? Let me see all your messages. Are you doing anything dangerous online?”
Try to communicate a sincere desire and curiosity to understand their world, such as:
What’s the most fun thing about Facebook?
Who of your friends is fun to talk to online?
How do you decide what you want to share online?
What did you share online that got the best reaction from your friends?
Do you ever feel like people are different online versus in person?
These sorts of questions will help open the conversation between you and your teenager about his or her online behavior, and keep you involved in what is occurring.
3. Express concerns respectfully.
If you do become aware of something your teenager is doing online and you are worried about it, express your concerns in a calm tone of voice. Explain the reasoning behind your concerns and listen to your teenager’s side. Work towards coming to a consensus about what he or she will do (or not do) in the future. Although parents retain a responsibility to ensure their teenager’s safety and guide their behaviors, keep in mind that policing teenagers’ online behavior to enforce rules can be difficult. Teenagers are often more knowledgeable about the workings of social media than their parents, can find ways to hide their behavior if parents set a blanket rule forbidding something and can develop relationship-damaging resentments if they do not understand the rationale for the rules or bans.
4. Thank your teenager.
No matter how small or limited the conversation, express appreciation to your teenager for participating in a conversation with you. Many teenagers are not talkative (with their parents) or they may initially distrust what their parents will do with information, so a thank you will go a long way. For example, you can say “thanks for sharing some of your online world with me” or “thanks for explaining how you connect with your friends” or “I was glad to learn more about Snapchat from you.”
5. Continue the conversation over time.
It isn’t realistic (or necessary) that parents will learn everything about their teenager’s online social world in one conversation. Pressing a teenager with questions can turn a conversation into an inquisition. Instead, have patience and come back to the conversation later in a relaxed way. Over time, this strategy will help you gain a good understanding of your teenager’s online social communication patterns, and his or her motivations for socializing online.
Amori Mikami's research interests include ways in which parents and teachers can help children to make friends.
Her publications include a study looking at social media use as a predictor for psychological adjustment. Among this study's findings, online social networks appear to improve outcomes for youth who are initially less accepted among peers but result in less positive outcomes for youth who start out more socially accepted.
Young adults often use the Internet, especially social networking sites, to connect and reconnect with friends and family members.