Internet safety with children is complicated enough, but parenting middle and high school teens brings even more complex challenges. (Companion post for all ages of children and teens)
The question of whether your teen is safe online comes down to trust and open communication. Open communication includes exploring values together and listening to teens’ emotions and experiences. Our teens are more likely to listen to our fears, concerns, and expectations if we listen deeply to theirs first.
So, all those conversations about the Youtuber they’re watching or the video game they’re playing is building the trust and skills everyone needs for when something uncomfortable happens. And even more than with younger children, it’s likely that some of the conversations with your teen will be pretty uncomfortable for you too.
Do I Want to Know What My Teen Is Doing Online?
No, you probably don’t—but maybe you should. We know from conversations with UU teens they’ve all seen and experienced hard things online. We've heard teens tell us they’ve accidentally seen bullying, fights, self harm, drug use, and even watched someone die violently online. This can happen from what shows up in a social media feed or a link a friend shares or even an innocent Google search. Remember just as an adult’s Facebook feed looks different from someone else’s, the online world our teens see can be very different than what we see when we log in.
Many of them don’t share what they see online with adults in their lives because they know that knowing will be hard for us. They know that we may be angry, sad, even grieve when they’re hurting. But if we don’t know, we can’t keep them company. Further, some teens do end up in harmful situations—with someone older pressuring them sexually or an adult using the online world to abuse them.
What Can I Do?
Talk to your teenagers. Listen more than you talk.
Let them know you are truly there for them. Ask them what would help them feel more comfortable coming to you. Acknowledge your discomfort—they can tell anyway. And reaffirm that you won’t punish them if they come to you having made a mistake or gotten themselves into a situation that’s uncomfortable or wrong.
I have read the text strings where an adult gradually steps across the line of what’s acceptable, where at first a teen might not realize anything is wrong, until the teen feels embarrassed for their parents to see. And that is exactly what a sexual predator is trying to do.
Things to Consider and Conversations to Have
Here are some areas to talk about—a small amount at a time, repeatedly over the years. The way you talk about them with your middle schooler will be different than with your high schooler. The repetition is important for many reasons: to build relationship and trust, to make sure they remember what you said, and so you can add things you forgot to say earlier.
Safe Adult Behavior
Talk with them how to recognize when an adult is safe. Ask them what makes them feel safe, what’s uncomfortable, and then share with them what you know. Talk about teachers, coaches, youth advisors, folks from church. Instead of asking them directly what they’ve experienced, you can start by asking what their friends and peers have experienced. As you build their trust in you, you can ask if they’ve had similar experiences. Be prepared to feel angry and sad: Teens, particularly girls, have probably already experienced sexual harassment, cat calling, and other creepy things not only from peers but from adults.
Remind them that there are adults online who are predators and that this makes you anxious and afraid. Conversations like this go better with a little adult vulnerability. They’ll listen better if they’re doing so to help you feel better than if they think you’re lecturing. And it’s okay to admit you’re afraid for them or anxious because you don’t know what it’s like to be a teen now. Remind them to be careful about what information they give to people they haven’t met in person and to never to meet a stranger before telling you about it.
Help them identify the safe adults in their lives whom they trust and whom they could go to if for some reason they feel like they can’t go to you. Reassure them it’s more important for them to seek a safe adult than to come to you first and you’ll understand. (I know you’ll probably have some feelings about this, but your teen doesn’t need to be burdened by them).
In some ways teens understand online privacy better than adults—it’s adults who take the seemingly innocent online Facebook quizzes that give companies like Cambridge Analytica data about them and repost Facebook posts giving answers that could give away passwords.
Teens value their privacy so much they gravitate to platforms with disappearing and secret messages. This is why Instagram has added disappearing messages! They sometimes keep two accounts—one more public and one more private where they can be their real selves without the pressure of looking like they have it together.
But it’s always a good idea to have a conversation about what personal information to share or not share online and that anything one posts can hang around forever—even disappearing messages. But especially if your teen is older, it’s probably worth having a conversation where you ask your teen’s advice too. They may surprise you about how much they can help you.
Can I Look?
With younger kids, I think parents should be watching young children’s internet explorations and looking at older children’s online activities at least occasionally. This is part of supervising them and part of building trust—that they are behaving well online and they’re sticking to the family agreement; and seeing what conversations to have about what they’re watching, playing, and talking about.
As they grow, this can be a delicate balance as teens want more privacy. The ongoing family conversation is: Where’s the current balance between ensuring your trust and avoiding things that feel invasive of their need for privacy?
This works best as an ongoing evolution with conversation rather than a fast change. If you’ve been having conversations about which app they install, who they’re talking to, and what they’re doing, you’ll be gaining a good sense of their discernment and building trust that they’ll come to you if they need you.
But, if they’ve had trouble telling you about something that’s happened online, whether something they did or something someone did to them, you may need to do more looking for a little while.
Teens do need and deserve privacy to talk with their friends—the challenge is to help them create safer spaces in which to do that. Having a parent read some of what they’re doing online would feel invasive, like letting you read their diary.
But, if your teen is working overtime to find ways to have secret conversations that are hidden from you that’s a sign to stop and do some talking. Maybe with a therapist. Are they not getting enough privacy? Have you been invasive in ways that eroded their trust in you? Or are they involved in unsafe activities they know will worry you?
I Have No Idea What That App Does…
It is a good idea to know what apps they’re using and to research them, especially together. Read the reviews, know what’s possible, and talk together about what your teen might do in response. And know there are lots of apps that look like one thing but are not, like photo organizers that hide private messaging functions.
Remember to think about video games as well--many video games include in-game chat that connects players around the world.
Sexting and Screenshots
Talking about sexting with your teen is a good idea. Exchanging nude pictures can be a healthy sexual expression—many adults engage in this.
However, in the United States the legal landscape often treats teen sexting as child pornography rather than respecting the consent of the young people involved. Check out the laws together to talk about what the risks are where you live.
And it can be risky in other ways. Remind your teens that even if they feel it’s safe to sext with someone they know and trust, like a significant other, that there’s a chance their conversation or photos could be recorded, stored or shared long after they would have considered it consensual. This can be especially likely after a break up when a formerly loving and caring partner is really angry and might do something they later regret. Even photos shared as a “disappearing” message can be saved as a screenshot and live on in internet servers. It’s also a sign of an unhealthy relationship if someone requests a sexy photo as “proof” of your love.
As your teen gets close to adulthood, it may be helpful to have a harm reduction conversation with them about how to reduce the dangers should they choose to sext once they turn 18. This resource is from Canada (which doesn’t have the same punitive laws as the United States) can be a helpful start to a conversation.
Sexually Explicit Material
If you haven’t talked about sexually explicit images and videos on the internet, especially with younger teens who haven’t yet taken Our Whole Lives for grades 7-9, it’s a good idea to do so now. We know kids see sexually explicit media well before parents expect them to. It could happen accidentally, or they may be curious.
“Pornography can confuse and misinform young teens, in part because the performers are adults paid to have sex for entertainment’s sake.” Parents as Sexuality Educators (a UUA small group ministry program for parents and caregivers)
Before having this conversation it can be good to clarify your own thoughts and feelings about sexually explicit media by having a conversation with other parents from your congregation or your co-parent or friends.
Are Their Friends Safe?
Talk to your teens now about what they’d do if a friend is in an unsafe situation. Almost every single time I have learned of a youth harming themselves or being harmed by someone else, it’s their friend who either comes forward first or helps them come forward. This includes abuse at home, abuse from other adults, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.
Ask your teen who they’d go to for help if they felt like they couldn’t tell you. Ask them what would help them tell you. Tell them you know they care for their friends and you would want to help.
Talk to your teen about cutting and self-harm. This is not the same as suicide—it’s a cry for help. Talk to them about suicidal ideation. Sometimes people feel so terrible that they want to kill themselves. If they wonder if a friend is feeling that badly—they shouldn’t feel afraid to ask. “Do you want to kill yourself?” and if the answer is maybe or yes they should get adult help fast.
Talk to them about how they and their peers are behaving. We know that with so much online time internet bullying is way up. Your child may be observing behavior that makes them uncomfortable. They may even be participating in it. Or they may be being bullied. Being bullied has tremendous negative impact, even leading to suicide. Children and youth need to know what to watch for and how to get help from adults.
Bullying: participating in it or being bullied, is a reason to cut back on how much internet access a teen has. While it can feel like it’s punishing the victim to remove access, it may be needed to protect your child and help rebuild their self-esteem. It can help them be able to tell their friends “I can’t be on that because my parents won’t let me.”
Talk about Values
Our teens are being targeted online by those who want to influence how they think and what they believe. In particular our white teenagers are being targeted by those who would like to pull them into the alt-right and then into white supremacy movements. Yes, this is happening to our UU teens too.
Our world is profoundly unsafe in many ways and our teenagers are growing into adults who will need to navigate and act. As much as we want to protect them from all that’s there, developing enough trust to talk about it together will help them more. Even if it’s hard for us.
The Internet Does a Lot of Good Too!
Especially right now while we’re all home physically distanced, we’re grateful for the ways the internet connects us to friends and loved ones. This is particularly important for teenagers who are busy becoming their own people, and connecting with their friends is vital for that.
The internet also allows youth to connect to other teens like them. Like how our queer and trans youth find each other and connect, even if they’re isolated. It allows them to connect with queer and trans elders and mentors like Kate Bornstein.
I started my adult career as a 21 year old Director of Technology at a small girls boarding school—in charge of the computer labs, the servers, the internet filter, and the annual internet safety presentation. And now I’ve been in UU youth ministry one way or another for more than a decade.
I want to offer both the hope and sober reality of what I’ve seen. I’ve seen UU teens targeted by older people online. I’ve seen the online sexual grooming from an adult they know in real life. And I’ve seen how they’ve bullied and hurt even each other.
But mostly, I’ve seen how much they love and care about each other and use the internet to amplify that love. And now more than ever they need that love and connection. I am so grateful this pandemic is happening when we have an internet to use. And even though there are dangers, the world has dangers too and this is a time our teens can keep learning, growing, and getting better at navigating the world we’re handing down to them.
Platforms and Apps
As UUA staff we have been assessing which platforms are ones which are safe(r) for youth ministry and which ones are less ideal.
Sex Ed during a Pandemic
Your OWL program is on hold, yes, but your child’s sex education doesn’t have to be on hold.
Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators is a small group ministry program to help parents and caregivers talk together so that we can be better sexuality educators with our kids. Because we are our kids’ primary sexuality educators. You could ask your congregation to help you set up a group or you can use the questions to talk with your friends and co-workers. The sessions on pornography and social media may be especially helpful now!
Wondering How the Alt-Right Targets Young People?
Great observations and advice on how to have conversations with white teenagers
Andrew Mckay breaks in down in his blog A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Alt-Right
NY Times blog The Daily features one young man’s experience in “The Rabbit Hole”
A parent shares her experience in “What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right"