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When Social Media is the Enemy: Re-evaluating Boundaries to Keep Teens Safe

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When parents first find out their tween or teen has engaged in any risk taking behaviour, they usually re-evaluate their parenting strategies and styles. Sometimes this means they make big changes to the way they are managing and monitoring their young person and technology in the home, especially when social media has become the enemy of their child’s safety.

There are three basic approaches I have seen parents take after discovering their teenager is struggling. These approaches depend on the parenting styles of the families. There is nothing conclusively right or wrong about any of these approaches.  In fact, the right help at the wrong time is the wrong help, so professional advice and personal judgement are critical. Balance is usually a good thing in life, even when it comes to parenting.

One mum said these wise words to me recently, “I know what I am doing is working today, but that can all change tomorrow.” We must stay flexible.

 Approach Number 1

The first approach is the ‘increased control’ approach. Parents may control the home environment by enforcing stricter online controls. They may also take away objects that could be used to harm. Some parents fear this approach may provoke backlash.

Other parents find it difficult to maintain in the long term. Its effectiveness may be limited because behavioural change isn’t initiated by the young person but is driven by the parent.

There are times when increased control and management of the internet is necessary, as triggers for risk taking behaviour are real. It is important that we keep our homes safe, positive spaces, especially during times of vulnerability. I would, however, advise that parents tackle one change at a time, to reduce resistance to change. Even one change will feel like a big deal to a young person. Simple things like designating tech-free zones (the dinner table, bathrooms and bedrooms after 9 p.m.) can make a big impact. Again, this will depend on the severity of the situation, and should not replace your own judgement.

 Approach Number 2

The second approach is a ‘keep a close eye’ approach. This is where you attempt to keep existing boundaries consistent but increase your watchful eye and communication. The aim is to treat a young person as per normal, making sure expectations for going to school and doing chores at home stay the same as much as possible. Exceptions to the normal routine are made when necessary. Relationship time is usually increased. Some families go so far as to insist on checking or monitoring devices but still allow them to be used without additional restrictions.

It’s important to acknowledge that there is a lot you can’t control when it comes to young people’s online life. If you find yourself stuck when it comes to controlling technology, ask yourself, What can I do? rather than What can’t I do? The important thing is to find positive alternatives and then surround your children with those positives.

Approach Number 3

The third approach is the ‘meet their needs’. This is a really common response, where parents go to great lengths to accommodate their child. An example might be allowing them to stay up all night on their phone because they can’t sleep. There is often the expectation that in meeting a child’s needs they will not feel the need to engage in risky behaviour. However, that is seldom the reality. Some parents have found this approach makes young people more self-indulgent and not accountable to their potential. This approach therefore does have its limitations, especially if it is not delivered in a balanced way.

Initially, parents may feel like they have to walk on eggshells and avoid conflict at all costs. Some parents even report that their young person used a threat of poor behaviour to get their own way or maintain control. This changes the balance of power in the home and makes parents feel manipulated. It is important that parents learn to be more assertive with their child again and not be afraid to parent. My advice is this: be the parent! Don’t let fear or your young person’s moods control your judgement.

Closing Thoughts

There is always a fine line between poor mental health and normal teenage behaviour. That line is one that can leave parents questioning themselves. What is important to remember is, even the most well-balanced teenagers try to manipulate their parents and at times their parents have to say ‘no’. 

The internet is entwined in almost every issue that families face, risky behaviour being no exception. We can’t deny its power and influence in our homes.

That is why I strongly urge parents of pre-teens to set up young people’s online life in a manner that can withstand the rockiest of the teenage years. It is critical that we educate ourselves as parents and have a strong plan for our kids’ digital journey from the beginning.

That being said, I know I am speaking to an audience whose children may have full autonomy online. It is much more difficult – perhaps impossible – to manage the content once they have this independence. It can be very distressing for parents who are no longer able to enforce rules or boundaries, especially when they know their child is in an unhealthy state of mind. However, parents – allow me to say this — please realise that if you are paying the bill, you still have more control than you may realise!

RECOMMENDED READING: For more content on this toipc check out my new book “Self-Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help

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