Teens & technology: Digital parenting tips

Kate Hawkesby explores the tangled web of online safety with the experts

How to get young people to look up from their phone or digital device can be the biggest struggle for parents of teenagers.
It seems like an unwinnable battle. You turn off the WiFi, they find a hotspot. You take away their device, they use their mate’s. You suggest going for a walk, they want to check you into an asylum. It often feels like lose-lose. But the Parenting Place, in collaboration with Vodafone, disagrees. They’ve joined forces with the communications giant to set up a digi-parenting website that helps parents work with their teens, strongly believing there are ways to navigate the problems of young people using the web.
“We’re trying to help parents debunk all the myriad of issues around this stuff – from cyber- bullying to time spent online, to helping kids understand their digital footprint,” says Vodafone’s Abbie Reynolds. Abbie reckons the critical age is 13 to 14 years old. “This is when your teen hits social media big-time,” she explains. And don’t I know it? I watched on in horror as, one by one, all of our kids’ worlds began revolving around the web. Suddenly, if they didn’t see it on Instagram, it didn’t really happen.
According to the Parenting Place, it’s also at this age that parents make their biggest mistake – gifting their teen a phone with no strings attached. Says the group’s Dave Atkinson, “Handing out a phone, then trying to make up rules and boundaries after the fact, is pointless. You’ve got to work towards it. So chat about routines and rules around technology use well in advance, and by the time they get their hands on a device, they’ll know the drill – or at least your expectations.
“It’s important to make sure your teen understands what they’re getting themselves into before they use any new hardware. You can even get them to sign a contract.”
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a New Zealand teen who hasn’t been asked to send a sext [a naked or semi-naked picture]” – Sean Lyons, Netsafe
Like a lot of parenting issues, the subject of teens being online is a minefield, which explains why almost 10,000 Kiwi parents a month are checking in on the site for tips.
“It’s a great resource for parents to access information and it enables them to help each other out too,” says manager Liz Wilson. She says most parents share just a few key concerns: How much screen time is too much for my kids? And how can I keep them safe online?
We’re right to feel concerned, particularly in New Zealand. A recent survey of 10 countries showed that almost one in three Kiwi teens has been the victim of cyber-bullying. That’s 30%, compared to a global average of 18%.
We also need to be aware of “sexting” and how prolific that is – our kids are sharing more naked pictures of themselves than we think. It’s advised you have a calm conversation about the legal and social risks of sending these pics. The fall-back position for many parents who don’t “get it”, according to Dave, is that technology is “ruining” young people. “It’s a valid opinion, but it’s not ruining them. It is having a profound effect on them, though, and so must be along for the ride.”
Being engaged with teens is the key, apparently. “If kids feel connected and engaged, they do better at school and in relationships. Connectedness is what makes their outcomes more successful,” says family coach Jenny Hale. But, reassuringly, our teens are doing better than we think. According to Parenting Place statistics, 72% of children do feel connected to their parents. Jenny says, “Children tend to comply with the rules when their relationship with their parents is strong, so building strong relationships should be our primary focus as mums and dads. And we shouldn’t be afraid to set boundaries.”
Her advice is to review tech rules often. So if you know a blanket “no” is going to cause a stink, try something more progressive: “Not yet, but at some stage when you’re a bit older or more ready, we can definitely look at that.” This way, they know you’re flexible and prepared to move with them. “Trusting your gut” is another good piece of advice handed out by experts. If you don’t feel comfortable with something, say so, and just saying that is enough.
77% of Kiwi kids and teens own a mobile phone. Of those, 62% are aged 13-14 years old, 82% are 15-17 years old and 89% are 18-19 years old. Source: Nielsen 2015
Check list for ages 13-14
These suggestions, from digi-parenting.co.nz, will help your teen start surfing safely.
■ Ask them what they’re visiting online and who they’re talking to. You wouldn’t let them go out in the real world without knowing where they’re going, so why let them do it online?
■ Teach them how to behave responsibly online, e.g. how to download music legally and respect other online users.
■ Make sure you set parental controls and activate Google SafeSearch to the right level for your child’s age and maturity, but remember they might not be 100% effective and they aren’t a substitute for parental supervision.
■ Remind them the internet is a public place and they must be very careful about revealing any personal information online.
■ Talk to them about their “digital footprint” – explain that any comments or photos they post now could be seen by anyone, even university admissions tutors and future employers. Remind them that what they put online is permanent, not temporary.
■ Set some ground rules for their mobile use and explain how they could run up large bills if they sign up for premium rate services, like ringtone or game downloads.
■ Encourage them to come to you if anything they see worries or upsets them.
■ Create your own Digi-Family Charter together, with rules you can all agree to.
Check list for ages 15+
Your teen will be well-versed in the web, so it’s a good time to revisit those ground rules.
■ If your son or daughter asks you to remove the parental controls or Google SafeSearch from their computer, think carefully. Are they mature enough to handle all online content? Or should you just adjust the settings slightly?
■ Take time to discuss how to behave responsibly online and to respect others, e.g. how to download content from legitimate websites and not to post thoughtless comments.
■ Explain why it’s important they are careful with their personal information online.
■ Talk to them about the challenges and risks posed by sharing their location, e.g. on Facebook Places – it may not be wise for everyone to know their physical whereabouts.
■ Remind them that their digital footprint means what goes online stays online. Use real-life examples, such as the fact employers often check social-networking sites for information about candidates.
■ Make sure they check with you before buying anything online, including apps and music – especially if they want to use your credit card.
■ Work together to create your own Digi-Family Charter, with rules you can all agree to.
■ Reward them. Teenagers value independence, so once they have proven just how responsible they can be, loosen up your rules a little. You can allow them more freedom and flexibilty as they earn it.

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