Tracy Sheppard and her teenage daughter, Kelsey, are friends. They don't roam the high school halls wearing matching outfits and giggle about boys. But Facebook doesn't care. In the world of social media, a "friend" is any contact invited in and given access to an individual's profile. Tracy finds that the best way to stay connected with her kids is to "friend" them.
Tracy explains, "Being part of their network is a prerequisite." For Tracy and her husband, it's less about invading Kelsey's online hangouts and eavesdropping on her conversations than it is about building relationship. But like many parents, it took the Sheppards time to feel comfortable in that environment.
Learning to get along
Ever since MySpace was king and teens discovered texting, parents have had an uneasy relationship with social media. Facebook. Twitter. Pheed. Instagram. Snapchat. Those strangers and others keep showing up at our door, asking to play with our kids. What to do: Invite them in? Or pretend no one's home and hope they'll go away?
Well, they haven't gone away. In fact, the whole brood has moved in next door. Now it's our job to learn to coexist in this ever-changing digital neighborhood. The best scenario, as the Sheppards discovered, involves using these high-tech tools to strengthen our families.
Are there still dangers? Without question. Experts agree that unsupervised and unlimited social media use can have negative effects on teens. Still, with nine out of 10 teens experienced in the use of social media, according to Commonsense Media, parents can't afford to ignore new technology or remain oblivious of how teens are connecting.
So where are teens connecting today? Anywhere they can satisfy a craving for validation. Teens want "views." They covet "likes." They collect "friends" and "followers." This generation desires attention and affirmation — often without discretion. And with teens' activities becoming more mobile and multifaceted, parents are finding it harder to monitor.
Be intentional, not intimidated
Fortunately, moms and dads willing to explore new technology and use it to their advantage can forge tighter bonds with their children. Research proves it. Psychologists have found that teenagers who connect with their parents on social media feel closer to them in everyday life. These young people are also less depressed, delinquent and aggressive.
"Although today's technology certainly has its downside, it also has plenty of upside for the parenting journey," says Bob Waliszewski, the director of PluggedIn.com and author of Plugged-In Parenting. "For instance, parents can send a ‘note' of encouragement by text or a photo with a sign saying, ‘I love you.' They can ‘like' their child's social media post, play a video game online together or share a humorous or uplifting video clip, podcast or music video. Today, there are ways for parents to further connect with their teens that parents of past generations couldn't have even imagined."
An added benefit is the chance to model appropriate behavior in digital environments. It's one thing for Tracy to tell Kelsey how to act online; it's another to show her. But teachable moments aside, parents will enjoy having new forums for fun interaction.
You may choose to launch a family Facebook page. At least one family has kept their teens checking in with them on social media by posting a daily trivia question and offering a reward for the right answer. Another staged a Twitter scavenger hunt that sent licensed teens driving around town in search of clues.
Meanwhile, if it's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, why limit yourself to a 140-character microblog? With teens' online activity becoming more image-driven in the era of Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram, consider ways a photo might generate a smile or deliver a blessing.
Indeed, just as we used to scrawl "You're awesome!" on the bathroom mirror or drop an encouraging note into a young child's lunchbox, a timely text or prudent post could build a bridge with a teenager. Emphasis on prudent. Remember, some channels are more social than others. Resist leaving a note where their friends might see, comment and share it. Rule No. 1: Avoid viral embarrassment.
Adolescents today have grown up with social media. They're digital natives. It's not a question of whether they'll embrace technology that could give parents a nervous tic, but rather when and how. Will we make the most of an evolving social-media world that has an app for everything? It will take work and wisdom, but it's more profitable than isolating ourselves from those quirky new neighbors. In fact, we could make a few new "friends" … starting with our teens.