Chances are, teenager Michelle Carter wasn’t thinking about what might happen to her when she texted her boyfriend Conrad Roy as he was in the process of ending his life. Whether these texts were heartless or compassionate is up to interpretation, but to Massachusetts authorities it was clear that Michelle encouraged Conrad to go through with his plan. And nearly three years later she was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Things might have been different if Michelle’s parents had been able to intervene. But if they’re like most parents, they probably weren’t aware of how their daughter was communicating. It’s not unusual for a large divide to exist between kids and their parents; what’s changed in recent years is that many parents have no idea what their kids are doing on social media.

It’s important to help your kids be wise in their use of social media. Here are some key points to discuss with them:

1. Your digital communication can come back to haunt you.

Many kids don’t realize how the words and photos they post online live on and can lead to consequences down the road. With apps like Snapchat that show text and photos momentarily before they disappear, they may get a false sense of security. Whatever the motives or emotions at the time of posting, tweets and text messages and Facebook posts can take on a different meaning if they fall into the hands of someone other than the original recipient.

Colleges and employers routinely search an applicant’s social media footprint when making decisions about enrollment or employment.  Businesses also may monitor the digital communication of their current employees. I know a teen who, this month, had a bad day at work and decided to gripe about her employer on a message board. She didn’t know that the business owner was also on the board, and she lost her job because they felt she was stirring up dissent among other employees.

2. Online privacy is a myth.

Anything you say or do on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone is vulnerable. In 2014, Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf found out that a high school classmate had hacked into the camera of the laptop that she kept in her bedroom and was watching her every move for a year.

It’s not just strangers who pose a problem. In the fickle world of adolescence, today’s friends can be tomorrow’s foes. How many news stories have we seen through the years about emails or photos that were first shared privately, only to be used to humiliate the sender when a relationship goes sour? Even text and photos your kids send through Snapchat can be screenshotted before they disappear and used against them.

In fact, everything done on an electronic device leaves a footprint that can be tracked. Web surfing history, downloads, even text messages can be recovered even after they’ve been deleted from a device. Even if Michelle Carter had deleted all her conversations with Conrad Roy, investigators would have been able to restore them.

3. Someone may be watching you.

For some mobile apps like Google Maps, it’s essential to allow your GPS to communicate your location. For most social media apps, though, this can open the door for problems. Snapchat recently announced a new feature which allows users to let friends know their exact geographic location in real time. That sent up some red flags from parents and adult users who recognize the potential for attracting stalkers.

Popular social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Find my Friends all allow you to add your location whenever you make a post. It’s likely that your kids are only doing this to communicate with their friends, but the bigger question may be, what constitutes a friend?

Your kids’ social media friend lists certainly include family members and their most trusted friends. But they also likely include their friends’ friends, casual acquaintances, and even strangers. These are people whose character they probably don’t know well, and that’s an invitation to trouble when it comes to using location services.

Encourage your adolescent to only post their location to close friends and family, or when they’re with adults or a large group of friends, or just to wait until after they’ve left a locale to post where they’ve been.

4. Cyber actions have real-world consequences.

The more time we spend on social media, the more our tendency to detach the images, social media profile, or screen name from the real people with real feelings who they represent. We tend to say and do things electronically that we would never think of doing in the presence of these people.

Catty comments and cyber bullying can lead to broken relationships, hurt feelings, and even suicide. Your kids need the constant encouragement to treat others with respect, and to let you know when others are verbally attacking them, or pressuring them to share inappropriate images.

5. “Life and death are in the power of the tongue…” (Proverbs 18:21).

Communication is a gift of God that allows us to relate to others and to Him. Throughout Scripture, particularly in Proverbs and the Epistles, we find lots of wisdom about how to use our words with others. Remind your children of these principles so that they ask themselves important questions before they post a comment or photo:

  • Will what I’m about to send build up or tear down? (Ephesians 4:29-32)
  • Before I talk about a person to others, have I talked to that person about any problem I have with him or her? (Galatians 6:1; Matthew 18:15)
  • Does what I’m saying and doing reflect well on me? Will it embarrass my family? Does it please God? (Matthew 22:37-40; 1 Corinthians 10:31)
  • Will this selfie I’m taking and about to send gain me true friends, or might it lead people to believe that I’m selfish and shallow? (1 Samuel 16:7; Proverbs 31:30)

Give them what you have to offer: wisdom from experience

Your kids probably know more about technology than you. Get used to it. But it will be many years before they have the discernment and wisdom that you’ve gained through years of successes and failures.

Kids are likely to be influenced by peers, allured by the prospect of new experiences, and prone to act on things based on the moment. So your kids need you—your wisdom, your emotional and spiritual maturity.

Engage your kids about their digital media use, but do it in a gracious way. If you see something that raises concern, let them know about it.

Just last night, my wife saw on Instagram that our daughter posted a video she took of her mom exercising. Our daughter posted it because she thought her mom looked cute, but she didn’t ask permission. It didn’t cross her mind that the video might have been a bit embarrassing to her mom. These conversations are important, and they help our maturing kids build perspective.

Your kids most likely won’t appreciate it, but expect them to give you password access to their smartphone and tablet. Even if you don’t ever check, they’ll still know that they’re accountable to you, and that may be the thing that keeps them out of trouble.

Also, insist that your kids take frequent breaks from their electronics and spend real-life time with the family. Social media can be a great way to learn and to connect with others, but it’s not a substitute for the real thing.

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