Teen Focus: Kids Online

The Internet is still a new frontier and parents have real cause for concern, since there are no laws or guidelines on how to navigate this daunting territory.

But though many studies have focused on the Internet’s negative impact on youth development, growing evidence suggests it can also have positive contributions.

To understand that potential, it is important to recognize the developmental changes taking place in your adolescent. A teenager places increasing premium on peer relationships, seeks autonomy, individuation and identity formation.

And though parents may be uncomfortable with the thought, be certain that your child is also exploring notions of romance and sex.

Cognitively, she is developing abstract thinking. But her understanding of consequences or long-term effects of her actions is still limited.

All these changes make for an interesting relationship with the Internet. When something so readily available and integral to our society is accessible to adolescents, it can have dire consequences if left unchecked. If understood and managed appropriately by parents, however, the Internet can be a valuable learning tool.

Unfortunately, research shows that parents aren’t getting as involved as they need to be and often are overestimating how much supervision they are giving.
Here are some potential problem areas:

In reality, sexting is not as common as people think. Only 4 percent of all teens (12-17) who own cell phones report sending sexually suggestive images of themselves.

Since kids this age are exploring their sexuality, it makes sense that they would explore it online as well as offline. But since adolescents often don’t anticipate long-term consequences, they fail to realize that sexting can have a lasting impact.

Talk about it with your kids before it becomes a problem. Be there to support your teen if he makes a poor choice.  

Some sentence starters to help get the conversation going: “What do you think about sexting?” “Do you know kids who sext?”

Follow up with more general questions. “What are you looking for in a relationship?” “What does taking care of yourself mean to you?” “What is a good friend?” “What’s a good relationship?”

Social Networking
Approximately 73 percent of teens who are online use social networking sites. Since this age group is so concerned with connecting socially, it makes sense that these sites are popular. They are a way for kids to shape an identity, make new friends and communicate with friends or flirt.

Learn the privacy settings and show them to your teen. Discuss different levels of what he might share, express your preferences and let your teen make his own choices.

Some sentence starters: “What can strangers learn about you from your profile?” “How do you decide what to share with your friends?” “What are some of your interests” (this can be an opportunity to connect)

Like so many things in life, moderation is the key. In small doses, gaming is a form of recreation that can provide a connection to other people and build confidence. It is a way for kids to try on new identities, much like the imaginary play of toddlers.

However, it has the potential to trap people who are prone to addiction.

Get involved. Understand what the game is about. Limit and monitor the time your teen spends gaming. Watch for warning signs that the gaming is replacing other social activities.

Some sentence starters: “Tell me about the games you’re playing.”  “Can you show me some of your skills?” “What do you enjoy most about gaming?” “What do you think are the upsides to gaming?  “What about the downsides?” “I noticed you haven’t wanted to play basketball lately-is everything OK?”

When you enter into a conversation with your teen, be prepared to be uncomfortable and stay committed.  Take time to understand what your child is going through and what his needs are. Teens want to feel heard and need to express their individuality.

Don’t be afraid to set limits and monitor what she is doing. An open line of communication is difficult, but worth it.

Katherine DeVaul, M.D. is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and Sam Sweet, Ph.D. is a registered psychologist, both from the Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto.


Online Resources

Here are some resources to help you navigate the Internet’s frontier.

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