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4-23-13 Parenting Teens in a Digital World
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by Pamela Consuegra, PhD
Associate Director, Family Ministries Department
North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists

The effect of social media on families


Today’s parents are dealing with issues that their own parents never had to face. Social media is a cultural change that did not enter our world until the end of the last century. Social media is not a passing fad. Instead, it is now the fabric of our American culture. As with many things, technology has proved to be both a blessing and a curse. In the last several months, we witnessed a nation's ruling party be overturned, due in part to the influence social media had upon its citizens. If it can impact a nation, it surely has an impact upon our families.

In a recent study, conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (2012), some startling information was revealed. The view that the family is in decline was largely shared by parents. This decline was attributed, to a large degree, to social media. Parents expressed a sense of danger to their child that was directly linked to the use of technology. Here are some of the findings revealed in the study:
  • 84% of teenagers carry a cell phone.
  • 93% of teenagers are connected to their peers via cell phone or social networking online.
  • 7 out of 10 teenagers are texting at least once a day and 64% are texting multiple times daily.
  • 4 out of 5 teenagers have a Twitter, Facebook, or other social networking account where they follow and friend people whom their parents don’t know.
  • Two-thirds of teenagers connect to their online social networks at least several times a week.
  • 62% of all parents of teenagers say that “my children are constantly connected electronically with their friends.”
Another study gave us cause to believe that the situation is actually worse than parents report.  It showed a disconnect between what parents perceptions were as compared with reality.  A newly released study, The Online Generation Gap: Contrasting attitudes and behaviors of parents and teens, conducted by Hart Research Associates for the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) found a “generation gap” between what parents think they know about their kid’s online behavior and what the teens say they actually know. In short, this study revealed that parents think they have a better handle on their child’s online behavior than they actually do. This means that the problem may be worse than parents think it is. In fact, 71% of teens say they hide their online activity from their parents (Sass, 2012).

Our children’s lives are infused with contacts, conversations, and information that many parents feel are out of their control.  Parents readily admit that their child sees things in media that they should not be seeing. Parents have a sense that they should, in fact, be doing more, however, they are uncertain as to how to get a handle on social media and the digital world that has invaded their child’s life. Many parents feel as if their attempts to control the use of media are futile. 

If parents try to envelop their child in a safety net against the influence of social media, they are left with no where for their child to go.  After all, let’s face the fact that social media is all around us. There is no escaping it. So, should parents just admit defeat?  Do we throw our hands up in the air and give up?

A key role of parenting is to teach our children to be responsible adults. This is not a matter of control. This is a matter of living up to our God-given responsibility as parents. And, in so doing, we will help to assure their safety amidst social media frenzy. Here are some thoughts to consider:

Install Parental Control Software
Teens should never have accounts that do not give you complete access to. Nothing should be a secret to you about their online activity. There is software available that you may install on all of your household computers which allows you to get a report of your child’s online activity, and block gaming and pornography. You may want to consider “Net Nanny.” It is the top rated parental control software available and it sells at a very affordable price.
 
Set Boundaries and Monitor Use of Technology
Limit time on the computer and be sure the computer is located in the main part of the house. Allowing your child to have computers in their room may limit your ability to monitor their activity and screen habits. Be warned that this may not be a popular move and they won't like this, but that is okay. Remember, you have a responsibility as a parent to protect your child as well as to teach them responsibility and time management.
 
Spend some time considering what you value as a family. Some families have decided to ban the television from their homes completely, finding the merits of television to be limited. Other families have decided to control television usage and programming, again reflecting family values. This is also another area where internet access may now be gained directly from your television. Therefore, setting boundaries and monitoring use of it is vital.
 
Many teenagers can't seem to put their cell phone down. They walk with it, eat with it, and lie in bed at night talking on it. At times they seem more attached to talking or texting on their phones than talking to family or friends in person. Texting has gotten out of control at every age and it seems as if families can no longer enjoy a family meal and eat in peace without texting or taking on the phone taking place throughout dinner. Establish ground rules for your family, adults included, so time to talk, share, and listen are a normal part of your family's interactions. Set up ‘no-texting' times and zones and be firm on this matter. Many have also made rules about putting cell phones away when they come into the home at night or at least limit the amount of time spent on them. Otherwise, technology will control your family instead of you controlling it.
 
Review All Social Media Accounts
If you, as a parent chose to allow your teenager to have a Facebook, Twitter, or other social media account, you will need to monitor their activity. On a regular basis, at unannounced times, sit down with their teen on a monthly basis and go over entries on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. This will help you become familiar with where your teens are spending their time and who they are communicating with. You will learn a lot when you see photos, read stories, and ask questions. Many parents would be shocked if they knew what their teens knew, saw, wrote, and read from their "friends".
 
Access to Social Media at Friends’ Homes
Many parents state their even if they control social media in their own home, their child is exposed to it at the home of their friends. Perhaps this is the easiest issue of all to solve. If this is an issue then don’t allow the child to stay overnight or visit that friend’s home unless you are along. It is not harsh and remember, you are the parent.
 
Model Responsible Behavior
Perhaps the most important thing that you can do to get a handle on parenting in this digital world is to be a positive role model in the way that you use technology. Many teens are simply acting in ways that have been modeled for them by their parents. Too many parents operate their lives by, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.' This is no way to effectively teach your children appropriate ways to utilize social media.
 
Parents, model moderation in your own use of the television, computer, and cell phone. Model the observance of laws, including laws about the use of cell phones while driving. When your teen gets his/her driving license they will mimic the model that you have set. If you do not want your child doing it, writing it, or watching it, then neither should you. We are counseled, “The words and acts of the parents are the most potent of educating influences, for they will surely be reflected in the character and conduct of the children” (White, 1889).
 
Many of the arguments as to how to handle social media places too much responsibility on the child for their own well-being and this is simply unfair and unhealthy.  Children need to grow up with parents doing their job so they do not have to grow up too quickly. There needs to be a clear distinction as to who the parent is and who the child is. What is the role of each? In essence, the question for many families is one of who is in charge?
 
Technology is both a blessing and a curse to today’s family.  It has the potential to be a wonderful contribution to our children’s lives if parents allow it to be a tool instead of a substitute for real relationships. Parents need to make sure they are setting boundaries, creating balance, and teaching responsibility.  By being intentional in our ever changing digital world, parents may greatly reduce the likelihood of having regrets. After all, every parent wants to know they have done all they can do to raise healthy, well-adjusted children, not just for life here, but more importantly, for eternity.

We have a God-given responsibility to introduce our children to Jesus. There is no work more important. Everything they are exposed to should bring them closer to their Savior. Perhaps we should let scripture be our filter as we navigate through our digital world. “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these thing.” (Philippians 4:8 NKJV)
 
 
References
Culture of American Families: Executive Report. 2012. Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. University of Virginia. Charlottesville, Virginia
The Online Generation Gap: Contrasting attitudes and behaviors of parents and teens.  2012. The report may be downloaded at:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrymagid/2012/11/14/for-kids-and-parents-theres-a-digital-genertion-gap-but-maybe-thats-ok/
Sass, E. 2012. Teens Running Circles Around Parents on Social Media. The Social Graf: Connecting Through the Chaos.
White, Ellen G. 1889. The Health Reformer May 1, par. 2.

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