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The Disconnect of Adolescent Cyber Relationships

F. Sia Turay, Special to The Informer | 12/11/2013, 2 p.m.

Increasingly teens and young adults are turning to the internet to socialize, for entertainment, and for information. Inasmuch as the web provides quick and easy access to data, many warn against the increased reliance on resources removed from actual people. The physical, emotional, and psychological changes that occur in adolescence prompt youths to have serious questions about their bodies, relationships, and health that are often personal, sensitive, or embarrassing. Lalita K. Suzuki, at the Children’s Digital Medical Center at the University of California, found that adolescents are often reluctant to consult physicians, peers, and others for personal health questions due to concerns about confidentiality.

“Health information on the Internet is a promising resource due to its accessibility, interactivity, and anonymity,” Suzuki said, who suggests parents have serious dialogue with teens 13-19 about the limits of online resources.

Why talk about Internet use with your teen?

Teens are separating from their parents, figuring out who they are, and asserting their individuality. In the media realm, as in other realms, this is when they move from identifying as members of a group (“We all watch The Simpsons”) to striking out on their own (“I created my own blog about baseball”). The increasing freedom and privacy is exciting and opens new possibilities for both learning and harm.

What is the parents' role?

Even though they look like adults and demand to be treated as adults, teens aren’t yet adults. Their brains are still developing the ability to understand the effects of their actions and to connect the present to the future. That’s why they still need a caring adult’s help to make choices and manage their behavior. Your role is to support your teen’s growing independence in ways that are both affirming and protective.

To support involvement in other activities, work with them on balancing all the things that are important to them. Help them to prioritize and manage their time, making sure that a healthy amount of sleep, a family meal, and academic and family obligations come first.

Slowly increase your teen’s freedom to decide how to use the Internet. She will push for it. Remember to move slowly, though—she needs to practice using the Internet in safe, healthful ways before she’s proven herself ready to be by herself in that realm, just as she does when learning to drive a car.

Keep the channels of communication open. Ask questions that your teen can answer. Sometimes, that will mean asking questions about other teens, or about things you’ve both seen in the media (“I keep hearing about sexting—what do you know about that? Can you tell me about it?”). Appeal to her mastery and expertise.

Emphasize that the Web is not private by keeping computers in public spaces. Your teen will want to go online in private. Let her show that she can monitor his time and activities online, and slowly give her more privacy as she proves herself.

What to say?

When talking with teens, listen as much as possible. They have ideas of what they’d like and how it could work. Support them in trying things, and offer support when what they try doesn’t work. Be there to help guide them through that process.