I never cease to be surprised in my job. You would think after enough years of sitting across the counseling room with teenagers that I’d have heard it all. For the most part, I have. However, their ingenuity with technology continues to boggle my mind. It’s all I can do to keep up with them, and they’re freely admitting to me how they misuse technology to do sneaky things. I can’t imagine how challenging it is for parents to try and figure out which app is being used for what, how to track what kind of pictures your child is posting and viewing online, and who in the world they’re talking to.
I will share what I know based on what I hear in the counseling room:
Firstly, most teenagers are using their cell phones appropriately. The majority of kids are not sneaking. They use their phones to call home, and to text their friends. They keep up with their friends on Snapchat and Instagram. They post things you’d be entirely fine with their grandma seeing, and a lot of them even “unfollow” people they know who post things they shouldn’t be. This is their social hub. This is how they are informed when someone is having a party, a group of people are going to the beach, or getting together to see a movie. They text one another questions about homework. They send encouragement if they’re having a bad day. They tell mom and dad if they change locations when they’re out with friends.
There are also a significant number of adolescents who are misusing the privilege of having a phone. Really, it’s the unrestricted internet access that’s the problem. Just texting and making phone calls is rarely the issue for a teenager. Even if you have the most sophisticated parental blocking system on your teenager’s cell phone, there is always a work-around. For example, most programs don’t block things on Facebook and Instagram. If you type in the right search terms, you can find pages dedicated to uploading pornographic images. Your teenager might also be trying out “Kik.” This is an app that allows chats with strangers, and the conversation history can be deleted. I have worked with more than one kid who met someone they thought was nice on Kik, but I was left wondering if they were a masquerading child sexual predator. In both cases these “girls” sent inappropriate photos to the adolescent boys I was working with. They tried to get information about the boys and asked for photos in return.
Here’s the main point: Be extremely careful when your child has a smart phone. You have to know how to check through their phone from time to time to see what they’re up to. More innocently, sometimes teenagers sign up for sites and input their home addresses and phone numbers. They don’t mean anything by it, but it still gives out information you might prefer be kept private.
The data plan on a phone definitely is a privilege. It seems like most teenagers now consider it a requirement for their survival, much like food, clothes and shelter. Do everything you can to teach them responsibility with their phone. A lot of teens are getting into things simply because they don’t have supervision on their phones, and don’t yet have the brain development required to really recognize the danger they might be in (that comes in late adolescence, which is the early 20s). I’ve noticed this most frequently with apps like Tinder. I wish I could promise you your teen is smart enough not to meet strangers from apps like Tinder, but enough of them do it that I can’t make you that promise. It’s really tough on parents to keep up these days, but it’s essential to your teenager developing healthy habits.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT