Parenting in the Digital Age

By Tracey Dowdy

I’m sitting at my desk with the sun beaming through my window. I’ve got my laptop, a new notebook, and coffee in my favorite mug. I’m ready to write but first let me take a selfie. On second thoughts, let’s not do that.

Before camera phones and social media, no one felt the need to document every meal, every outfit, every day as if it were a scientific experiment. I’m confident even Jonas Salk didn’t maintain such a meticulous record of his research as does the average teen – and frankly, more than a few adults.

As parents, we know the importance of our kids’ friends and the value placed on their opinions. A teen’s peer group is central to his or her social development, and acceptance and validation by that peer group has a monumental impact on self-image. That’s been the norm as long as there have been teenagers. Generally, the older you get, the less you care what others think, but as a teenager, it’s a way of life.

Today’s teens are coming of age online, so it’s not surprising that the impact of social media is significant. Since many online interactions are with strangers, there’s a sense of anonymity, and with that anonymity comes a sense of invisibility. In other words, there’s a greater sense of freedom and for some that translates into a lack of accountability. Comments are often made online that would be off limits in a face to face conversation.

That lack of accountability becomes more dangerous when you consider the results of a 2010 study by York University that found teens with lower self-esteem spend more time online and post more self-promoting content. In addition, a January 2015 study by Common Sense Media found:

  • 35% of teens fear being tagged in an unflattering picture;
  • 27% stress about their physical appearance in posted photos; and
  • 22% felt hurt if their photos didn’t generate enough  attention.

“They’re playing in a different sandbox,” said Catherine Steiner-Adair, psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. “Kids are being kids with a tool that has far more powerful impact than they understand. Parents are feeling understandably overwhelmed by all the challenges technology brings with it. At the same time, this is the age in which we are parenting.”

So where does that leave us as parents? Where do we begin when our kids know more than we do about social media?

Don’t despair. You don’t need to be a social media expert to teach your kids how to safely and positively interact online.

  • Be a good role model. Your kids may not always pay attention to what you say but they do pay attention to what you do. Online or offline, treat others with respect. Model the behavior you want your child to live out. Simply putting your phone down when you’re having a conversation with your kids lets them know that what they have to say is important to you and deserving of your full attention.
  • Teach your children to think critically. Again, online or off, teach your children to stop and think about what they’ve just read or what they’ve seen. The internet is today’s Wild West where almost anything goes. Help them understand that just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s true or acceptable.
  • Teach them to evaluate what they post. My father-in-law’s mantra of “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” works just as well online as it does in real-life.
  • Look for positive role models. Instead of rail thin models or millionaire athletes, teach them to look beyond physical appearance and money for their heroes. If that model overcame an eating disorder, celebrate her courage. If that athlete spends time working with underprivileged kids, celebrate that too. Teach your kids it’s the character behind the image that really matters.
  • Help them develop a healthy body image. Teach them to see the importance of a healthy body over one that mirrors whatever celebrity is in the headlines. Look for celebrities comfortable in their own skin, not afraid to buck societal norms and be themselves. And as a parent, be cautious of constantly mocking your own appearance and weight.
  • Teach your children empathy. Help them stop and think about the impact of their words. Ask them to consider how it feels when they’re mocked or criticized for what they’ve posted.
  • If there’s a problem, take action. If you feel your child is the victim of bullying or the one engaging in bullying behavior online, don’t wait, take action. The headlines are full of teens on both sides of the issue and every one of the stories is enough to break your heart.

In a tech-driven society, sometimes real world relationships suffer. Take the time to have these conversations. Encourage your kids to talk about their feelings. No easy task I realize, but it’s important your kids know the opportunity is there should they want to open up. The key is to be proactive. Whether your tween is new to social media or your teen is light-years ahead of you, opening these conversations can ensure that the Wild West is a little less lawless.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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