For Teens, Digital Citizenship Takes Practice

“I just don’t get it!” sighed a parent I spoke to recently. “We’ve talked about this over and over again. She knows better!”

He was referring to his daughter getting pulled into online conflict that had quickly escalated to the level of getting the school principal involved. If you are a parent of a teenager, you might have had similar thoughts before. “But they should know better than this!”

It has nothing to do with smarts

It may not provide much comfort in the moment, but mistakes like this one have little to do with smarts.

Poor decisions online can be baffling and confusing to parents who feel that they have rehearsed the standard Internet safety tips with their kids. Indeed, the majority of young people can recite them back to you quickly and confidently with a, “Yes, yes, I KNOW!” Kids get it. They can write a beautifully written essay in school about proper Internet etiquette. So why would a teen turn the paper in and then behave in just the opposite way?

Again, it doesn’t have anything to do with smarts. It likely does have something to do with growing and developing regulation, risk assessment, and perspective taking.

Teenager looking at her phone

Whatever the brain does a lot of, is what the brain gets good at

We’ve written a lot about the teenage brain. Just when young people are beginning to exercise their independence and figure out who they are, the region of their brain just behind their forehead goes “under construction.” This region, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), is the seat of executive function and serves as the “orchestra conductor” in our brain. It helps us weigh the potential consequences of our actions and enables us to “Stop, Look, and Listen” before taking action. It also helps us manage our big feelings and take other people’s perspectives.

This does not mean that the PFC is broken or that teenagers can’t be trusted. Indeed, we know that the majority of young people use a variety of strategies to manage their online information and privacy. But young people do need practice thinking ahead and considering the impact of their actions – online and offline. Taking into account multiple audiences and long terms impacts in a digital landscape where messages are highly visible and shareable is a heavy lift for any age brain. It’s an even bigger lift for one that is under construction. 

The good news? The teenage brain is also built to learn from experimentation and mistakes, especially when they receive constructive and positive feedback. This means that early adolescence is an incredible window for coaching, conversation, and practice around the skills and habits they will need to navigate their digital lives.

Parenting for digital citizenship

As more and more activities are “digital by default” during the pandemic, teens have a lot more time to interact with each other online. For the most part, these interactions are protective for their health and wellbeing. That said, more time online also means more opportunities to experience social conflict, unhealthy relationship dynamics, and tricky social comparisons. Now is the time to avoid parenting extremes and take the middle road of parenting for digital citizenship. Taking over our teens’ digital lives isn’t going to help them practice the skills they need to navigate the complex challenges of living in a connected world. On the other hand, handing them a smartphone and wishing them luck sets everyone up for failure. Young people rely on us to hold them accountable, define appropriate boundaries, and help them build skills. Here are some steps to get started:

Engage your teen in creating a Family Media Plan

There are plenty of technology agreements and contracts that you can print off online (your child’s school may have already sent one home!) These are great to get a sense of the kinds of rules, roles, and responsibilities you might want to explore. When it comes to a Family Media Plan though, we recommend that you invite your teen into the process and create your own. It does not need to be Pinterest-worthy material. It simply needs to capture everyone’s voice and reflect a set of agreements that everyone can live with.

Avoid rushing to confiscate your teen’s device

Teens report that they avoid telling their parents about digital drama or conflicts because they are worried that their parents will confiscate their devices. That’s not to say that more strict boundaries or even taking away devices aren’t off limits. However, rushing to this consequence can backfire and make it less likely that kids turn to us for support and problem solving as they navigate complicated online dynamics. If a tech-related consequence is appropriate, you might consider limiting certain privileges related to the incident for a limited period of time as opposed to taking it away entirely.

Use Internet “incidents” as an opportunity to communicate

Don’t forget to use Internet incidents as an opportunity to communicate, not just an opportunity to deliver long lectures. Take a deep breath and try to approach the situation with curiosity. Listen to what your teenager has to say. You might still be in a position to enforce consequences but complement them with empathy, discussion, and plenty of active listening.

Get specific. Build skills.

Remember, whatever the brain does a lot is what the brain gets good at. Too often, our digital citizenship talks focus on broad advice like, “Be kind!” While this is a worthy values statement, we shouldn’t assume that putting this into practice online is obvious or easy for kids. In fact, it’s not even simple for adults.  Provide specific and concrete practice by addressing questions like, “What can you do if you have been involved in really hurting someone’s feelings?” Or, “How can you protect yourself when you experience racism online?” Or, “What might you do if someone you like asks you to send them a picture that makes you feel uncomfortable? What can you say?” Generate specific ideas together and introduce your teen to resources that tackle specific online challenges and introduce specific digital dilemmas. They may not thank us for our recommendations, but they may turn to the resources when we aren’t around.

Monitor to build trust, not erode it

Especially when we are busy, it is tempting to install parental controls and checkin only to dole out punishments. If you choose to use monitoring tools and parental controls, be sure to use them in ways that build trust, independence, and communication. Each of our kids has a unique set of strengths and vulnerabilities when it comes to screen time, so don’t rely on electronic tools alone to flag concerning behaviors. For example, knowing the signs of cyberbullying and observing how our kids behave and feel online and offline go a lot further in helping us cue into challenges than any online tool.

Honor your teen’s strengths

Don’t reduce your teen to a developing prefrontal cortex. Young people are capable of incredible integrity and courage – online and offline. Harnessing their passion and energy and directing it towards positive risk taking, honest conversations, and action-oriented projects are incredible complements to the standard digital citizenship lessons. Young people can help define what it means to be an upstander for themselves and others. Look into online youth-media challenges, resources through community media centers, or plug into efforts at school. Acknowledge and celebrate your teen’s digital strengths. Their brains are wired to respond to this kind of positive feedback.

Expand the conversation from staying safe to building healthy communities

It’s easy to reduce conversations about digital citizenship at home to a simple list of Internet safety tips. While personal safety is essential, it limits the scope of our conversations and doesn’t respect the complex and diverse ways that our kids are learning and socializing. Kids deserve more expansive conversations that will help them tackle the ways that racism, sexism, bullying behaviors, and toxic interactions show up online and offline. They deserve to be engaged in meaningful ways not only about what not to do online but how they might use technology to shape more just, equitable and healthy communities. The conversations have already started – let’s be sure to encourage our kids to plug in where it matters most.