By Kerry Gallagher
Your teens will probably be around the house and have more downtime this summer than they do during the school year. That means they will also have more opportunities to go online to watch videos, play games, and use social media. While they deserve a break to unwind and relax a bit after the hectic pace of school, we want to keep them safe and encourage them to be aware of the risks and benefits of using technology.
1. Share some of you and they will share some of them
Did someone post something funny/offensive/cute/sad in your Facebook/Instagram/Twitter feed? Show it to your child. Explain your reactions and thoughts. Ask what kinds of feelings that post elicits for them. What might future employers think if they Google that person and find the posts? Has someone’s post ever changed your opinion of them? If the conversation evolves, you can ask your teens if they have ever posted something they regret. How did they handle it? Remind them that no one expects them to be perfect, but it is important for their posts to be positive and accurate so they are creating a digital reputation they can be proud of in the future.
2. Ask for their expertise
Still perplexed by Snapchat or the games on their console? Instead of saying, “I don’t get ____. Explain it to me so I get it,” try starting by saying, “I want to know why you love ____. It must be great if you like it.” A more positive approach will lead to a more positive conversation about how they are connecting and sharing with other people using social media or games. Once they explain and show you, ask them who they talk to and if they have ever looked at their privacy settings. ConnectSafely parent guides can help you prepare and advise them. Remember, your teen considers online communication a key aspect of socialization. If you dismiss the online part of their lives as unimportant, they might feel as if you don’t want to truly understand them.
3. Make it a pact, or even a game
Agree to short blackouts, and see how far you can go together. Start with an hour. Neither of you can touch a smartphone, video game console, laptop, television, or other electronics you agree to add to the mix. Make a game of it. The one who slips up has to cook dinner or clean the toilets (whichever is least desirable). Extend it each day: 2 hours, until lunchtime, through dinner. At first, the goal might be to teach self-restraint but eventually you will find yourselves competing over who is getting the most out of all that time. How many books did you read? How many miles did you hike?
4. Start talking about, and planning for, the future
An academic or professional online presence is becoming a necessity. In fact, a coalition of 80 top colleges and universities are changing their application to include a digital portfolio. Use the summer as an opportunity to start creating that portfolio. What work did your teen do this past school year that should be shared? How are they going to share it? Social media can work. This post from the Family Online Safety Institute can be a guide to get your teen started. There are platforms that are specifically designed for academic and professional content. This Huffington Post article has some ideas using LinkedIn and a few other platforms. Encourage your teens to read those articles and get started. Believe it or not, having an online presence — even being visible in search engines — can benefit your teen if the items are positive. And, should something negative emerge online about your teen, having positive or neutral listings can make the bad stuff harder to find.
5. Keep the learning going
While we want our teens to be safe online, we also want them to feel empowered by the possibilities and resources the Internet offers. There are opportunities for creativity. My teacher friends with kids from age 11 up through high school age have told me they create their own YouTube channels with original, upbeat video podcasts like Kid President or how-to videos like Club Academia. I’ve seen kid-generated podcasts that are book or movie reviews, musical or dramatic performances, stop motion videos, and much more. As they produce each episode in their summer series, they will use essential skills like brainstorming, drafting, and storyboarding. As a parent, you can set videos to private or unlisted if you have privacy concerns.
Summer is an opportunity to learn more about the risks and rewards of using digital tools to work, play, and communicate. You and your teens can learn a lot together. Leverage the time that summer offers and by the time the next school year begins you will both be smarter and ready.
Kerry Gallagher is the Director of K-12 Education for ConnectSafely.org, in addition to her full-time role as Digital Learning Specialist at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts.