Teens & social media: Parents’ other job

An interesting myth about social media is the one about tension between teen privacy and teen safety. Because of all the scary messaging about the Internet that has been in circulation for almost two decades, many parents seem to believe it’s their job to monitor their children’s Net use closely. The assumption is that privacy (from parents) jeopardizes their safety.

That assumption deserves to be challenged. Why? Because privacy is not necessarily the opposite of protection; it may be one means to it. If, where most kids are concerned (of course not vulnerable or at-risk youth), we think of privacy as space to figure things out on one’s own and work things out with peers, it becomes clear that privacy affords learning about who one is, how to interact well with others, and how to apply one’s values to those interactions. As such, it’s part of developing agency, self-actualization, social efficacy and resilience (which actually can’t be separated from risk – see this) – part of growing up and finding one’s place in the world, right? “Adolescents’ perceptions of efficacy play a major role in their transition from childhood dependency to adulthood self-sufficiency,” wrote psychology professors Barry Zimmerman and Timothy Cleary in a 2006 book about teens and self-efficacy.

We can neither make that efficacy happen for them nor can we leave them completely on their own to develop it. I’m not suggesting total privacy from parental surveillance – it’s an ongoing calibration and recalibration and very individual. But I do suggest we can’t really find the right calibration if we’ve completely bought into the popular belief (or fear) that protecting kids means allowing them no unmonitored, unsupervised space to hang out in digital spaces and learn what being emotionally safe means to themselves and others and how to co-create that safety with their peers.

“All too often, parents erode their relationship with their children because they believe they have the right to snoop,” wrote youth and media researcher danah boyd after years of in-person interviews with teens and their parents throughout the US. You probably agree that building trust together, with the open communication that implies, is a whole lot better for any relationship than surveillance and control. And a whole lot better for their safety in social media is to help them develop social- and media-literacy skills rather than to reinforce their dependence on us. “The key to guiding teens – and for that matter, yourselves [wrote danah, speaking to parents] – is to start by asking questions. ‘What are you trying to achieve? Who do you think you’re talking to? How would you feel if someone else was looking? What if what you said could be misinterpreted?’ Start these conversations when your children are young and help them learn how to evolve. There’s no formula.”

So of course it’s our job to protect our children, but it’s not our only job. Our other key responsibility is to help them do their job of growing up and developing self-efficacy online as well as offline.

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