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Digital Parenting: 5 Ways to Mentor and Monitor Your Teen Online

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Digital Parenting: 5 Ways to Mentor and Monitor Your Teen Online

When it comes to mobile devices we’re all newbies.

Consider this: Apple launched the iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad in 2010. In a short time, mobile devices have multiplied and become ingrained in our daily lives—to the point where it’s hard to remember life pre-smartphone.

It’s no surprise that teens have embraced mobile devices with gusto. A recent Pew Research Study on teens and technology confirms that smartphone usage is at an all-time high: 37 percent of all teens have a smartphone, and three out of four teens are mobile Internet users. Our kids are ditching the traditional desktop in droves—often leaving parents and their prying eyes out-of-the-loop as they navigate the complicated world of social media and the Internet.

As much as teens love mobile technology, research shows that they’re looking for guidance on how to manage their digital lives, but they readily acknowledge that their parents aren’t up to the task. Teens are just as likely to turn to a friend for advice on managing online and social media privacy as they are to ask an adult, according to a companion study by Pew Research. When it comes to mentoring and monitoring our children’s digital lives, it seems, most adults are dropping the ball.

Why Parents Need to Step Up Their Digital Game

As a mother of three boys, I admit it: keeping up with kids and technology is intimidating, ever-changing and complicated. Parents feel ill-equipped to stay on top of hundreds of morphing Apps and devices, yet our kids do it effortlessly. We feel overwhelmed by stories of teens gone wild: “Am I Pretty?” posts on YouTube, midnight texting binges (a.k.a. vamping), and suicides fueled by social media—just to name a few recent headlines.

But parents can’t bury their heads in the sand and hope for the best. It’s absolutely necessary for parents to take an active role in their teens’ digital lives—or we’re setting them up for failure, said Joani Geltman, parenting expert and author of The Survival Guide to Parenting Teens. Case in point: giving your middle schooler a new smartphone without any limits on Apps or the Internet. “Developmentally, teens—especially younger teens—don’t have the self-control to navigate the digital world on their own. We’re giving them too much independence and setting unrealistic expectations,” noted Geltman.

So parents of tech-loving tweens and teens, consider this your digital wake-up call. It’s time to take a more proactive role in managing, monitoring, and (dare I say) setting limits on our kids’ texting, browsing, and gaming.

Here are 4 steps to start mentoring and monitoring your teen’s digital life.

Step 1: Get Familiar with the Digital Teen Scene

It’s true that knowledge is power for parents of teens, so get up to speed on your child’s favorite social media and texting Apps, pronto. Let the experts do the work for you. There are many websites and bloggers dedicated to raising parents’ digital awareness.

Make it a habit to bookmark a trusted site like commonsensemedia.org, my go-to resource for parent-centered advice and reviews of Apps, social media, movies, and more. Why I like it: parents can browse by topic or age, and the content is frequently updated to match fast-moving digital trends. A recent must-read: 15 Sites and Apps that Kids are Heading to Beyond Facebook, including the pitfalls of each.

Other websites of note: I like The Cyber Safety Lady’s blog for no-holds-barred digital parenting advice (if you have a hands-off attitude about your child and Instagram, this post will change your mind—and at the very least, spark a conversation about Instagram’s privacy settings and how to use them).

Step 2: Know Your Parental Control Options

The more I learn about the unmonitored digital lives of teens, the more I’m convinced that parents (like, ahem, me) don’t adequately research and employ parental controls. We’re convinced they’re too time consuming, difficult and ineffective against tech-savvy kids.

The key is to research age-appropriate controls that work for your family. Limiting your actions to tweaking the settings on your teen’s smartphone, for example, isn’t fool-proof and won’t keep older and/or smarter teens from finding (i.e., Googling) a way around those limits. More sophisticated options to consider include:

openDNS: a web-based blocking filter that controls the content of every device in your household via your network router: mobile devices, gaming consoles, and computers. Parents can block individual websites or specific types of content (i.e., pornographic sites). All bets are off, though, if your teen taps into the neighbor’s unsecured wireless network or turns off his cell phone’s wireless setting (thereby accessing the Internet on your phone carrier’s network). In that case, consider the next option.

Phone carrier controls: Most carriers have parental controls that allow you to manage your child’s texting, calls, and data usage. For example, are you frustrated with your teen’s bedtime texting and social media habits? You don’t have to get into a battle at night. Most phone carriers allow you to set times of usage (i.e., turn off your teen’s smartphone from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Monday-Friday). The loophole? Your teen could tip toe downstairs and open up the laptop. In that case, you’ll want to consider…

Router settings: Some wireless routers allow you to limit Internet time by device. A tech-savvy friend with three teenagers uses his Apple wireless router to customize each child’s device at night. “Limiting data usage via the router takes the confrontation out of it…you don’t have to be the mean parent and force your kid to hand over the laptop,” he noted. So, for example, if one child is too tempted to keep off Facebook during homework hours, he can block his son’s Internet access on that teen’s device for a specified time.

Step 3: Set Digital Limits

The most difficult part about implementing the parental controls outlined above? For most parents, it’s following through and setting consistent limits on their kids’ digital activities. “Parents have a hard time saying no to their kids when it comes to smartphones,” noted Geltman.

“Do I think it’s a good idea to give young teens unrestricted and unmonitored smartphone access? No.” Just as you wouldn’t hand over the keys to the car when your kid is 16 and expect them to know how to drive, Geltman said, parents shouldn’t give a kid a smartphone with unlimited Apps—and then expect him to use it responsibly. The temptations are just too great to browse explicit web sites and text around the clock at the expense of homework and engaging with family.

So what’s a parent to do? “You’ve got to gradually increase your child’s privileges,” Geltman advised. Emphasize clear-cut, consistent rules on when and where devices are allowed in your house (for one hour after homework is finished, for example, with more texting time and Apps added as your child matures and proves she can handle her smartphone responsibly).

For more detailed solutions on setting practical digital limits with your older teen, again, see Geltman’s book, A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens.

Step 4: Be an Advocate for Your Child’s Privacy Rights

When it comes to Internet privacy, be your child’s best advocate: advise him early and often on how to set the highest privacy settings on social media apps. For younger kids, develop a list of personal information your child should never share online; this isn’t as obvious to kids as it is to adults (name, address, age, birth date, school, favorite sports). Click here for more tips from Common Sense Media on protecting your child’s identity online.

Also talk to your child about the sites she uses and the different types of ads she sees online. “New modes of advertising are insidious and particularly troubling for kids and teens, who are less able to differentiate advertising from entertainment,” said a Common Sense spokesperson. “What does it mean for a tween or teen girl to receive weight-loss ads, targeted to her based on her age, gender, location, the foods she likes and the topics she searches? We need to understand the impact of this type of advertising on young people.”

Spark a thought-provoking conversation rather than a one-way parental lecture. Share this link to get the dialogue going. After all, we can’t prevent our teens from exploring online, but as parents we can act as well-informed guides and mentors to help our kids become digitally educated, responsible and aware.

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Kristen Licciardi-profile-picture

Kristen Licciardi is a freelance writer living in New Jersey and a mother of three boys. She started her career in the editorial department of Glamour and spent many years in marketing positions at magazines including Redbook, U.S. News &World Report and Time. She made the leap into the digital world, working most recently at Slate and Washington Post Digital.

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