The role of digital technology (i.e., computers, the Internet, video games, smart phones, etc.) in the lives of children has been increasing over the last century at an astonishing rate. When we think about previous generations and the role of radio, film, and television, it is clear that this phenomenon is not new. However, the evolution of digital media since the introduction of the personal computer in the late 1970s has been extraordinary and continues at a historical pace. Many parents are only partially aware of the kinds of digital media that are being used by their children. Watching their children grow up as digital natives, many parents feel left behind in this emerging digital world in which their children reside so comfortably. Perhaps this is why some parents react with suspicion and view these new technologies as a negative influence on their children.

Parents often focus on the potential problems of digital media use (e.g., cyber-bullying, online predators) and how they can protect their children from such dangers. As with almost any new technology there are always some risks. However, by focusing on the negative side we ignore the many positive aspects of digital media, including the ways that it can contribute to our children’s development, enhance the parent-teen relations and provide new tools to strengthen and extend our parenting skills.

In our roles as parents we deal with issues around providing love, safety, guidance and resources for our emerging teens. These basic functions have not changed much over the last several generations, but the way we provide them has, especially in light of modern-day technological advances. Below are the primary functions that parents play in the lives of young teens along with some suggestions about how digital technology can be used to help meet them.

Love and Communicate:
Parents need to develop and maintain a warm and supportive relationship with their teen. This usually involves communicating respect, interest, warmth and affection while allowing for increased privacy, autonomy, and differences of opinion. One way you can use digital technology to love and communicate with your child is by posting a “way to go” message on your teen’s Facebook page or via a text after an accomplishment. Another way to promote family bonding and also create opportunities to talk with your child is by spending time together playing an online video game. And if you don’t know how to play, let your child teach you!

Monitor and Protect:
Parents need to monitor their teens’ behavior and well-being by being aware of teens’ whereabouts, activities and relationships. As children get older more of the monitoring must be done indirectly which can be challenging for parents. We need to seek a balance between need for supervision and need for privacy. One strategy for monitoring and protecting teens is to have them text you after school or when they’re out with friends for a brief “check in.” Another idea is for parents to “Friend” their child on Facebook. This not only helps parents keep tabs on what gets posted but also provides parents with an inside understanding of what’s going on in your child’s life. Similarly, if your children’s friends are willing, you can get to know your child’s friends by “friending” them on Facebook.

Guide and Limit:
Parents need to set clear boundaries in ways that acknowledge and promote teens’ problem solving and decision making skills. When discipline is used, the goal should be to teach and guide, not to punish, vent or take revenge. For instance, instead of banning your teen from their social networking site for posting a hurtful comment about another teen, have them research the consequences of bullying on the Internet. It is also important for parents to provide consistent rules about appropriate technology use but to allow more freedom as teens mature.

Model and Teach:
Parents need to provide teens with ongoing information and counsel to support good decision-making around values and goals. Parents teach by example and teens are influenced by what parents do and say. Don’t model the bad behavior you don’t want to see in your teen. For instance, if taking phone calls and texts during dinner is off limits for your child, then it should be for you and your partner. Provide opportunities to model the behaviors you value. If extended family is important to you, consider having a regular Skype night with relatives. Finally, involve your teen in making rules around the use of digital media (e.g., How much screen time is reasonable? Which games are appropriate?). This not only leads to more buy-in from your teen but provides a valuable opportunity to help him or her practice decision-making skills.

Advocate and Connect:
Parents need to provide for teens’ basic needs (food, clothing, shelter and healthcare) as well advocate for and connect them to other adults and organization that also contribute their health, safety and well-being. If their teachers have class listserves, be sure to sign up. Use the web to keep tabs on what’s going on at school and in the out-of-school activities in which you teen participates. Identify people and services that can support your parenting by joining an online class to learn more about adolescent development (like Parenthetical!). Try creating a social media site (e.g, a Facebook group page) with the parents of your teen’s friends. This can provide a great way to share information, keep tabs on your child’s whereabouts, and discuss issues and rules.

By better understanding digital media we as parents can learn to use it as a positive force to enhance our parenting skills and better communicate with our teens.

How do you use technology to better communicate with and parent your tween or teen?

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Article by Lori Zierl

webzierl,-loriThis week’s post is written by Lori Zierl from the University of Wisconsin-Extension Family Living Education Program. Lori and her team of UW-Extension educators (Kristen Bruder, Mary Huser and our own Steve Small and Anne Clarkson) have have developed a new program for parents called eParenting High Tech Kids. One of the aims of the program is to help parents develop strategies for using digital media that can enhance their parenting skills and build family strengths.