Parents, Adolescents, and the Internet

Adolescents on the Internet require parental supervision and support

Posted Feb 13, 2012

Adolescents are adventurers. They want to experiment and explore the larger world for more experience to grow. But today, as contrasted with their parents' youth, the geography of that world has dramatically enlarged with the Internet revolution.

Staying on the home computer, or on a portable or cellular device, adolescents can go anywhere in this virtual world. They can search out all kinds of information, they can play computer games with people in far away places, they can stream all manner of audio and visual entertainment, they can convey communication in multiple ways, they can store and display a huge variety of data, they can shop for just about anything, they can create an online identity by which they are publically known, and they can join social networks through which they can keep in touch and stay informed.

To put it mildly, "This isn't Kansas anymore." Computer travel on the Internet has vastly increased the adolescent's field of play, in the process vastly complicating the responsibilities of parents.

This said, the Internet is not the enemy of adolescence, nor does it change the nature of adolescence. It only creates a wider arena of experience in which adolescence can unfold. It becomes a major place to hang out and interact with friends, to seek entertainment, to acquire worldly knowledge, to establish more independence of family, and to grow oneself up.

So what are parents to do with the "new normal" of the Internet? I believe they should have three goals for their adolescent when it comes to Internet use - acquiring proficiency, promoting safety, and maintaining balance.

Start with acquiring PROFICIENCY. The online world is an extremely enriched, compelling, and empowering environment. And it is one adolescents need to become knowledgeable about and competent in because it is here to stay. The skills it takes to resourcefully access and navigate this virtual world will be essential to most educational, occupational, and social paths that lead into their future.

To develop this proficiency requires practice, a lot of which takes place for most young people doing adolescence. Practice takes time, and it is up to parents to determine how much is too much time or a waste of time. Thus use of the Internet can create many conflicts with their teenager over attention spent gaming, streaming entertainment, surfing, emailing, messaging, and social networking. Any use is practice, but not all use is otherwise beneficial. However, competence on the Internet has become an essential life skill.

Now consider promoting SAFETY. Technological change is usually embraced more quickly and enthusiastically by the young than by the old. Thus Internet possibilities that excite adolescents often frighten their parents. Both adolescent and parent are asking the same question about online life, "what if?" However, for the teenager this is usually an expression of interest and curiosity, while for the parent it is often a statement of worry and concern.

What are they concerned about? "Free" as the Internet may feel for the freedom loving adolescent, it is not free from risks, and these risks parents need to help their son or daughter understand. Consider a common few.

The risk of exposure: with every online entry you are further identified.

The risk of linkage: wherever you link to can link back to you.

The risk of persuasion: online experience can influence personal action.

The risk of permanence: what you post now is out there forever.

The risk of exploitation: your personal information can profit others.

The risk of deception: misinformation and misrepresentation abound.

The risk of victimization: other users can use you to your disadvantage.

The risk of habituation: repeated use can create patterns of dependency.

The risk of isolation: online interaction can reduce offline socializing.

The risk of impulse: it's easy to say online what you wouldn't say in person.

I believe that Internet risks to adolescents go up as parental involvement goes down. Many teenagers, however, pleading their right to privacy, argue that parents should have no need to know what they do online. "I should be free to use the Internet no questions asked, no limits set, no supervision given."

But, consider the use of another piece of modern technology that gets adolescents out in the world - the automobile. I have yet to meet a parent who says to their young driver: "Here are the keys. Your use of the car is private. Drive where you will. I will require no information, will do no checking up on you, and will set no conditions about where you go or what you do."

So some parental conditions for car use may be: don't drive and drink or drug; don't drive and talk on the cell phone; don't exceed the speed limits. And just as parents have a need to know where the teenager travels in the car, they need to know where he travels on the Internet.

Because the home computer is a major portal to the Internet, they may impose conditions that prohibit certain destinations for the present, explaining why. For example, they may say that hate sites, pornographic sites, explicit violence sites, drug use sites, or gambling sites are off limits.

"Why?" asks the teenager. "Because," they reply, "we don't want that kind of content coming into our home and impacting our family."

Rather than getting into an argument about privacy, parents should simply explain their need for some degree of participation in and communication about the adolescent's life in general, online activity just being another significant part, like social life and school life. It is normal and healthy for adolescents to want to be active on the Internet, and it is normal and healthy for parents to want to be involved.

Finally, there is the issue of maintaining a healthy BALANCE. Of concern for parents should not just be risks from commission (the effects of what young people do on the Internet), but the risks of omission (the cost of what they give up doing by investing their time and energy on the Internet.) It's easy to sacrifice physical exercise, face to face socializing, creative self-expression, family time, household chores, and homework, for compelling Internet activity.

At issue is the balance between how much of life is lived online and how much is lived offline. A lot of offline living has to do with engagement with real life challenges that develop real life strengths. A lot of online living can take the form of escape, with using endless entertainment possibilities to avoid the practicalities of self-care, work, and social participation.

At the extreme, there can a kind of Internet retreat from the demands of offline reality. Online living can feel more pleasurable, exciting, secure, simple, and under control than offline living which often feels more unpleasant, boring, chaotic, difficult, and complex.

Then there is the reality for many adolescents that more social connecting and communication with peers is conducted online, terminal to terminal, than offline and in person. Because this interaction is primarily written, it is "cue-less communication." It lacks much of the nonverbal data provided by a face-to-face, in-person exchange - having access to the other person's physical posturing and appearance, facial expression and voice tone, for example.

Sheltered from this more complete interpersonal exposure, some socially uncomfortable adolescents can prefer being unseen and unheard when interacting. In the process they may shy away from practicing and developing a full repertoire of social communication skills which they will need to independently make their way in the world.

In the Internet age, parents have a responsibility to help their adolescent manage a healthy mix of online and offline life. To that end, here are three general guidelines to consider.

1. Explain how managing adult independence and mature relationships is going to require more offline capabilities than online skills.

2. Don't allow online entertainment to become so all-consuming that significant  areas of offline functioning like commitments to family, school, self-care, and social growth are neglected.

3. Use adequacy of offline functioning and responsibility as a guide for determining how much online activity to permit.

For good and ill, the Internet is a huge step in our social evolution, and it is in the long term interests of adolescents to keep up with this technological transformation. The Internet challenge for parents with their adolescents is supporting proficiency, teaching safety, and maintaining balance.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.)  More information at:

Next week's entry: Why Adolescents Don't Care What Parents Think.