Like all of us, teens are made to live in relationship. They are social, interested in peers, and looking for connection in the relationships they build. They are also growing in independence. For many, social media is newly available to them and it is tailor-made made for those who are just entering the social scene. It offers an easy way to connect with people and places a world of information at their fingertips. It can even offer community to those who are shy or more isolated and need a connection to the outside world.
However, this new way of relating can be dangerous to a teen who is unaware of its potential risks. Indiscriminate use of social media can have many negative impacts. It is addictive. It can create a felt need to always be “connected” for fear of missing out on something. Some teens will start to lose sleep and lose interest in other activities. Others will constantly create and recreate themselves online while feeling a false sense of security because of the perceived safety of an electronic screen. This might lead to a lack of discretion about what is okay to post and make them vulnerable to on-line bullying, sexting, and pornography. It can even increase the risk of victimization from online predators.
These problems are serious and, as parents, we need to be in ongoing conversations with our kids about them. Just like teaching a child to handle a stove, a bike, or a car, we must also prepare them to use social media well. We would never let a young child simply turn on a stovetop and begin playing with it, nor would we hand a 14-year-old the keys to a truck and expect them to have the knowledge, skill and good judgement to handle it. Likewise, we should not hand kids a smart phone or other connected device without first proactively shaping how they think about and interact with this new technology.
To start, talk with them about the biblical principle of stewardship. Remind them that we are called to be stewards of what God has created (Psalm 24:1). It is all his and we and are to use it faithfully to serve him. Explain that stewardship extends to all that man creates as well, including electronic devices. Help your kids form the way they view technology. Teach them about its benefits and potential dangers—it’s never too early. Much heartache is avoided when parents are involved in shaping their child’s view on this subject—rather than trying to debunk a wrong one.
Then, to keep the conversation going, develop a working knowledge and understanding of social media. Parents (and youth workers, and counselors) do not have the luxury of dismissing their ignorance as unimportant. What may not be of interest or value to you must become so for the sake of the well-being of our young people. In fact, being well-educated on social media will win you the respect of your children and help you avoid over-reacting or imposing unjustified restrictions when questions arise about specific apps.
Use that knowledge to monitor and limit their activities online. Teens have a false sense of security when hiding behind an electronic screen in the comfort of their own home. They presume they are safe and alone. It is a parent’s responsibility to be sure they actually are safe. Until a young person has the maturity, tools, and skill to protect themselves, it is a parent’s job to do so for them. This will not be met with excitement on your teen’s behalf. It means being on top of their activities. It means being called over-protective, and potentially being told you are “the only parent in school who does ______.”
Teach safety skills online. Personal information should never be requested or given out. Be aware of all sites and passwords your child has, and be willing to check on them regularly. Even if you trust your child’s online activity, be aware that there are others online with your son or daughter who are not trustworthy. Role play uncomfortable situations until your kids can articulate what is wrong with what is being asked of them and how they would handle it. Give “what if” questions to prepare them for the unexpected. “What if someone asked for personal information?” “What if you got a text from someone you didn’t know, what would you do?” “What if your girlfriend/ boyfriend sent you an inappropriate picture?” Make it an on-going conversation, one that does not instill fear but preparedness.
And finally, teach them personal responsibility and godly fidelity in whatever they do. In Colossians 3:23-24, Paul writes: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” We want to encourage young people to engage in daily life with godliness and the conviction that they are living for the approval of the Lord, not the applause of their friends.
Our children are growing up in a world that thrives on technology, and we must be faithful in helping them engage with it. As with many things, technology can be a useful tool and a source of enjoyment, connection, and education. It can also become an addiction, idol, or tool for malice. The more we build strong character in our children, and the more we actively teach them to steward technology, the more likely they are to handle it with skill and wisdom.