10 things you don't know about teens and social networking

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

By Sarah B. Weir

Its 10 pm, do you know where your children are? Whether at home or out, odds are they are online and social networking. Even if parents do see what their kids post, they might not understand how living life online actually feels. Facebook Me, an original play written and performed by teens at the upcoming New York International Fringe Festival is a revealing exploration of what's going on behind millions of young people's computer screens.

I recently sat down with the cast (whose names have been changed below) and asked them to share about their experiences with social networking. I also spoke with a professor specializing in the psychology of technology, who offers some timely advice for parents. What the kids had to say:

"There's more 'life' happening online than offline. If you are not online, you are completely out of the loop--you don't have a life, you don't really exist."

--Hannah, 13 years old

"I'm online even during class. I'm supposed to be taking notes but instead I'm commenting on stuff and uploading pictures."

--Emma, 14 years old

"I feel safer online than I do offline. So I do things online that I wouldn't do in real life."

--Sadie, 14 years old

"I've become very good at taking pictures of myself. I know what angle is best, I know how to part my lips...you know. It's like the number one thing on my mind is 'I need to get home right now and take a new profile picture.' All because I want someone to comment on how I look."

--Katie, 15 years old

"Social networking affects all the things you do in real life now. Like, if you go to a party, one of the most important aspects of going to the party is to document yourself for online posts. You have to prove you were looking good, you were having fun, and that you were actually there! It's not about the party anymore but about the pictures of the party."

--Caroline, 14 years old

"I feel sad, depressed, jealous, or whatever when I don't get a lot of "Likes" on my photo or when someone else gets way more Likes than me. Honestly, I'm not sure that parents realize how drastically it affects our self-image and confidence. If I see a picture of a really pretty girl, it's like 'Goodbye self-esteem.' It forces me to compete and do stuff that I don't want to do, so my confidence will get a boost."

--Samantha, 14 years old

"Sometimes I feel like I'm losing control. I want my parents to tell me to get off the computer. Actually, they would need to literally take the computer away because I can't stop myself."

--Nina, 15 years old

"My friendships are really affected by social networking. You have to constantly validate your friends online. And everyone's like 'Where were you?' 'What have you been doing?' 'Why haven't you commented on my picture yet?' So you have to be online all the time, just to keep track, so you don't upset anyone."

--Jasmine, 13 years old

"There is so much pressure to look happy all the time-you can never just be yourself-- because everybody is always taking pictures and posting them."

--Nikki, 13 years old

"I really want my mom to be proud of me. Obviously, I want her to think I'm writing my essay or doing things I should be doing instead of being on Facebook. But I also want to be online. So I lie or accuse her of not trusting me. It's awful, but I've become really comfortable with lying."

--Maya, 14 years old

Some new research has shown that social networking can also have positive effects on teens such as helping introverted adolescents forge relationships or providing a venue for activism and political engagement. But, given the lure of spending too much time plugged in and the self-esteem issues related to the constant scrutiny of one's online persona, how can parents help their kids have a healthy and productive relationship with technology?

Professor Larry D. Rosen of the California State University is an expert in the field of the "Psychology of Technology" and the author of Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn and Me, Myspace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation. He offers this advice:

  • Start young. You wouldn't let your toddler cross the street without holding your hand, so don't hand them your iPhone to play with for the first time without starting a simple discussion about the appropriate use of technology. These discussions need to be ongoing and become more complex as kids get older.

  • Listen. The ratio of parent listening to parent talking should be about five to one. Ask nonjudgmental questions in order to learn and assess. Here's an example: "I heard the term cyberbullying. Do you know what this is?" If kids think they are going to be "slammed" by their parents on a topic, they will shut down.

  • Institute family meals with tech breaks. Current psychological literature recommends that families sit down and share at least 3 or 4 meals together a week. Keep them short--under 45 minutes--and tech free for the most part. Give everyone a two-minute warning to check whatever device beforehand. After 15 minutes, allow a one minute message or text check. Aim to expand the tech free time as your kids become more focused.

  • Don't use your ignorance about technology as an excuse. It's true that kids know more about technology than parents but this is a poor reason for adults to act clueless about what teens or tweens might be doing online. Equally counterproductive is letting a kid spend hours on end alone in their room on the computer so you "can get work done."

  • Don't rely on secretly monitoring online activities. Not only is it an invasion of privacy, most kids can work around parents' surveillance in a matter of minutes.

  • Look for warning signs. If your child is regularly staying home "sick" from school and spending the entire day on the computer, if they choose to be online more often than out with friends, or if their grades are suffering because they are distracted by technology, you need to step in and help them create boundaries. With their input, draft a written contract with clear rules and consequences. Often, parents make initial penalties too big such as grounding their kid for a month if they catch them online in the middle of the night. Better to start small such as losing their phone for an hour and escalate as necessary.