“Check out my six pack,” my daughter said with a grin. I looked over at her slouched on the couch as she held up her thumbs. She went on, “I’ve been texting so much, I’ve developed three bulging muscles in each thumb.” I rolled my eyes, making light of her comment, but on the inside I also realized she had turned a corner with technology.
As a teenager, she’s reached the age where from here on she will always be one step ahead of me with technology. She will know what the newest apps are and how to use them before I do. She will know the newest internet lingo before I will. And she’ll adopt new social media tools before I’ve even heard of them.
I’m not alone. I’m guessing, regardless of how tech savvy you are as a parent, your teenager will always know more. It’s quite sobering, is it not?
Expressing themselves in 140 characters
The pace of life in our culture leaves precious little time for real-world interaction. This generation of teenagers has largely exchanged face-to-face time with friends for screen time with acquaintances. They desire community, close friendships, and environments where they can “just be me,” but they attempt to find these things in social media apps such as YouTube, Snapchat, Tumblr, and Instagram.
Social media programs are built around the idea of connecting with others and self-expression. Because of this, young users can tend to go overboard in friending everyone who comes along, and they can have poor self-control in knowing what can be posted. This is particularly true when it comes to issues of a sexual nature.
When we were young teenagers, if we wanted to flirt with someone, we would put a note in their locker or have a friend pass on a message. Today’s teens send sexually graphic text messages called sexts. Far from a fringe behavior, a recent survey revealed that 39% of all teens say they have sent/posted a sexually suggestive message. Over 20% have sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves and more than half of girls said they felt pressure by a boyfriend to send a “special” picture.
Digital reputations last a lifetime
Teenagers have grown accustomed to sharing all of their life online. Regardless if the information they post is silly or sensitive, sappy or self-centered, all of it is part of a digital reputation they are creating.
Social networking has given colleges and prospective employers a bird’s-eye view into the life of every teenager. It may not be fair, but every person your teen has “friended,” organization or group they have “liked,” and photo they have posted, is a permanent record of their digital life.
More than 70% of colleges now look at the Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts of applicants to judge the quality of the student. When grading job applicants, 40% of Fortune 500 companies now scour social media sites to see who a person really is.
It is hard for your teen to think four to eight years down the road to how his present online actions can affect his future. He doesn’t have the life experience yet to fully grasp the public forum the internet and social media create. Part of your job as a parent is to be a buffer for him—to help him see his online self from an outsider’s perspective. Have him ask the following questions before posting anything online:
- Does this clearly communicate who I am?
- Does this compromise my faith or moral standard?
- Do I want this to always be associated with me?
- Am I writing this just because I’m angry or hurt?
- Would I want my future spouse to see this?
An engaging response to technology
On the surface, it may appear that your teen’s life is more fractured because of technology. But for them, this way of life is the only thing they’ve ever known. The sheer quantity of technology in a teen’s life can strain communication between the two of you, and it can cause their lives to become unbalanced. That tension requires you to adjust how you communicate with each other, and it requires your teen to be accountable to having good boundaries with technology.
Here are four suggestions to get your teen to begin using technology wisely:
1. Set time of day restrictions. Make sure your teen is getting a good night’s sleep by putting all their tech devices on the kitchen counter and not in their bedroom. Set a time when all devices need to be shut down.
2. Look one another in the eyes. Whenever you and your teenager are talking to one another, the fingers need to stop and eyes look up. This goes both ways. Don’t miss out on a moment when your teen is being vulnerable and wants to talk simply because you can’t put down the laptop yourself.
3. Provide a safe environment. Starting when your children are young, make sure you are setting them up for success with technology by putting your computers in an open area of your home. Set up filtering software on all of their devices including iPods, tablets, cell phones, and handheld gaming systems.
4. Hold them accountable but with grace. Your teenager is going to make some huge, monumental, foolish mistakes with technology. Whether it is a careless photo on Facebook, looking at digital pornography, or sending a tweet they can’t take back, they need to know that you still receive them. Chances are they already feel embarrassed about it; now they need your help to know how to make things right.
If our teenagers are going to learn to use technology in a way that is honoring to themselves and the God we serve, then we must choose to engage technology with them. Instead of perpetually being frustrated, become a learner.
Ask your child to show you how to use the new phone you just bought. Ask your teenager to share one new social media buzzword with you that you didn’t know. Send them a text message with words of encouragement or praise instead of just checking in on when they will be home. Sit down and play a video game with your son. When you take these sorts of steps, technology is working with you instead of against you.
I’ll never have a six pack in my thumbs, nor will I ever equal the amount of time my children are connected to technology. But with the time we do have together as a family, I can model for them how to use technology responsibly and set reasonable expectations for their own technology usage so we don’t forget what one another’s eyes look like.