Parenting teenagers requires a delicate balance of giving kids increasing amounts of freedom and independence while still being hands-on enough to help them navigate the real world. That proposition is complicated, and even more so when it comes to teens and their technology. To help you navigate this tricky new terrain, we asked experts for advice on how parents should handle teens and their smart phones to help youngsters move toward independence.
“Youth need to be a part of public life, and today’s public life is mediated through technology,” says Danah Boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, founder of Data & Society Research Institute and visiting professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. “One of the biggest challenges parents face is to help their children learn to participate in public as they transition from childhood to adolescence.”
Talk, talk, talk.
Parents need to view talking with their teens about technology as a continuing conversation. Diana Graber, digital literacy educator and co-founder of CyberWise, suggests that parents initiate conversations with their children long before they reach the teen years.
“It’s not one big talk, but a million small talks to prepare them slowly to get on their own two feet in this world,” says “You can’t just jump in to the technology conversation when they are in high school. “
How parents handle those conversations makes a big difference. “Build trust with your child from an early age by inviting them to think about their decision-making process rather than telling them what they should/shouldn’t do,” Boyd advises. “As they transition into ‘teenagedom,’ they’ll become reticent to share their logic, as they will when you ask pointed or judgmental questions. Ask to inspire or better understand, not to be critical.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Mullen’s practice focuses on the wellness and health of young people. He says establishing trust with your child is critical because if the child has a perception of distrust, it can lead to negative outcomes.
“To a child, the perception of a parent’s trust is a powerful thing, ideally causing many of them to rise to the occasion and put forth their most independent and responsible selves,” Mullen says.
Focus on making a positive digital footprint.
Parents need to help teens understand that all of their online activity creates a lasting representation of them. “Every time they’re online it’s a footprint and that everything they do has an impact and creates that footprint, including who they choose to be friends with online and what they say about them,” Graber says.
She suggests talking to your kids about how they would handle difficult situations like cyber bullying and ethical dilemmas. That will help them build the skills they’ll need to monitor themselves when you give them autonomy on social media.
“Teens should be putting themselves out there positively and creating something that reflects well on them,” Devorah Heitner, founder of Raising Digital Natives says. She suggests parents ask to see photos posted by others that they feel reflect positively or negatively on the individual sharing them to see what their children identify as their own criteria for sharing and posting images.
Parents of younger kids should be actively monitoring their child’s phone, but as they get older, that can lessen. Heitner reminds parents that once kids are 18 and away at college, you won’t be able to check their texts, so help teens work toward independence while they’re still under your roof.
“Once the student reaches high school, their potential to connect in ways outside the reach of their parents is increased greatly, so the situation necessitates a decrease in supervision,” Mullen says.
But still have some rules.
Teens should not, however, be allowed to sleep with a phone in their room at night. “They may tell you that they use it as an alarm clock, but don’t let them do that. Get them an alarm clock,” Heitner says.
Mullen says common rules like an understanding that the parent may review the phone’s contents at any time and keeping the phone in a common area of the home overnight can help prevent phone use from getting out of control and reduce the likelihood that teens will be sleep deprived from late-night texting. Of course, a non-negotiable rule should be no phones while operating a vehicle (for teens and parents alike).
Consider other kids.
Boyd cautions parents to not focus solely on their own children, and instead recommends having a broader view. Try to stay in touch with how your kids’ friends are doing as well.
“We’re all influenced by those around us and if your child’s friends are struggling with family issues, mental health, etcetera, this will impact your child,” Boyd says. “So be available to your child’s friends.”
Use technology to your advantage.
Parents are often wary of technology, but the experts recommend that parents should see it as a parenting tool they can use advantageously. Mullen says the most successful parents find ways to leverage technology to communicate with their kids.
“Today’s teens may not be as likely to spend extended periods conversing with their parents,” Mullen says. “Parents who are willing to adapt to the preferences of their ‘digital native’ children will find that it helps them stay connected over time.”