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What IS a big deal online for teenagers?

Understandably, adults are concerned about the online behavior of teenagers, specifically with social media. When I’m out talking to youth workers and hosting parent workshops I find most adults fall into one of two categories:

  1. Completely uninvolved.
  2. Completely over-involved.

As the parent of teenagers and also a youth worker who reads/studies/talks a whole lot about the online lives of teenagers I’m empathetic to both parties. On the one hand we’ve just got a lot to deal with already… checking out on this one thing is easy to do. As one parent told me, “I’m more worried about my daughter actually having sex. I don’t have time to worry about my daughter sexting.” On the other hand we don’t want to see our kids stumble and fall into bad habits and sin if we can prevent it.

That leaves me somewhere in the middle. A lot of things parents freak out about aren’t really that important. But there are some things that ARE: What’s actually helpful to keep an eye on? So what IS a big deal that I should be paying attention to? 


For me, a lack of transparency is where the problem often begins. From early childhood kids are given devices and allowed to wander around the home without supervision. As time goes on, for convenience rather than an actual strategy, the child learns that it’s best to just take that device somewhere private… a bedroom, a bathroom, the basement playroom, wherever. (We have a 5 year old who watches cartoons on Netflix all day. I know the temptation to send him somewhere else quite well!)

In reality, most parents have no idea what their 5 year olds are doing on an iPad because it’s out of sight. Consequently, by the time that 5 year old becomes a 15 year old your daughter assumes that she should use her phone, iPad, or computer in her bedroom without supervision.

Likewise, children… especially teenagers… have no idea what parents are doing online. (Data suggests that you’re largely doing the same things!) So they end up picking up on your habits by inference and discovery more than specific direction. For instance, you make a rule for them that they can’t text after 10:00 PM. But they see you doing it so they pick up that it must not be that important. Or, even though you may have said they shouldn’t look at things like porn, they accidentally discovered a parents porn-related Google searches while using a shared device.

Lack of communication, inference, and discovery are really not good ways to parent a teenager’s online life. Instead, what I recommend starting as early as possible is an open screen policy for everyone in the house.

In our house, that means that you have to earn the right to use a device in your room… and even then it’s with an open door policy. That means devices in our house have open screens… meaning I can take a peak at what you’re doing and you can take a peak at what I’m doing. We consider every device a family device.

This level of transparency acts as a social filter. I don’t watch things on Amazon Prime Video or Netflix because I know that my kids are going to see recommendations based on what I’m watching. Likewise, my teenagers are a little more careful about what they look at on Reddit or YouTube because they know a parent or sibling can walk by and see their screen at any time.

Empathy for others

Empathy, as a whole, is hard for teenagers. This is especially true with younger adolescents as they haven’t quite developed the ability to see something from someone else’s perspective. But empathy is something you can and should foster with your kids online. A few years back my older two kids hatched a plan on Minecraft where they put up an item for auction with a fraudulent description and then watched the auction climb into the stratosphere. They knew what they did was “bad” but they didn’t think of it as “really” stealing. They argued that they were just having fun and that their description of the item was misleading but factually true. This was a great opportunity to talk about empathy.

This is particularly important as it relates to online gaming, which for some is their social media. Let’s say your teenager is into a first person shooter game and wants to play it at every waking moment they have available? Within the right boundaries that’s fine, right? If you were to monitor the chatter that sometimes goes along with these games you might see it as an opportunity to talk about empathy. Yes, the object of the game is to defeat the opponent. But how you win is as much a matter of character as it is of skill. Just like we teach on the golf course… at the end of a round can you say “good game” or offer a sign of respect to your opponent? Can you talk about them in a way that isn’t demeaning or derogatory?

While I’m not convinced that playing violent video games have a cause/effect to the long-term probability of someone being violent. I am convinced that being a good sport, having good manners, and playing a game in a respectful way goes a long way towards developing empathy.

Private space

You might be surprised that I’m a big fan of teenagers having private lives online. I don’t feel the need, nor encourage others, to keep close tabs on their teenagers online profiles. In fact, I would argue that this can be harmful.

We monitor the behavior of teenagers in ways that were unfathomable to our own teenage experience. I can check my teenager’s grades at any moment. I can see what assignments were turned in and which weren’t. I can track my kids physical location with their phone. I can contact them pretty much at any time. And, truth be told, when I don’t have this amount of access to my teenagers I get a little nervous.

That’s why I advise parents to allow your teenagers to have some private space online. While I certainly suggest (cough, insist!) that parents monitor their kids online activity when they are young, starting in about 8th grade you should start backing off ever-so-slowly. The goal here isn’t to not care! The goal is to begin shifting your role from a person who monitors everything to a person who helps troubleshoot when things pop up that they don’t know how to handle. For example, I used to look at my 15 year olds text messages back when she first got her phone at 12. At this point I’ve got a good handle on who she is texting but I don’t go through her text messages even though she knows that I reserve the right to do that. Is that my negligence? Of course not. That’s her having the ability to earn some private space.

Why is this important? This is important for developmental reasons. One of the tasks of adolescence is figuring out who you are as an individual. You simply can’t do that if your parents know every last detail about everything you do and think. If you don’t create space for a private life you’ll experience one of two outcomes:

a. You’ll simply kick that can down the road. They’ll go through this without you, say in their college dorm.

b. They’ll go underground. They’ll create the world you know about while secretly creating the world you don’t know anything about.


We don’t do prevention very well as a culture. Our tendency is to wait for something to become a crisis and then work backwards to fix what’s broken and maybe address some of the circumstances that got us into trouble. My hope in this post is that this post helps you see that this isn’t so much about prevention, it’s about habits. As parents and youth workers we can foster habits that are preventative measures on their own.

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1 thought on “What IS a big deal online for teenagers?

  1. Good Stuff and very well written!

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