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Does this scenario sound familiar? You're in the middle of a nice restaurant, enjoying dinner with your extended family when you look up from your meal. Your teen daughter has her iPhone out, tweeting back and forth with her boyfriend under the table, and now you're seeing red. Your first instinct might be to rip the phone from her hand and ban her from using technology in all forms, but don't. "Parents have to accept that this world is a technology-based world," says licensed family therapist Bette Alkazian, founder of Balanced Parenting. "We have to understand that our kids will need technology skills and understanding to remain employed in the coming generations."
But manners are important, too. As teens, your kids are at the perfect age for an ongoing conversation about how to appropriately handle tech toys in a new world of innovation. Here are the dos and don'ts of approaching teens and technology.
DO: Set the Right Tone
You want your kids to be connected, online and off. It's up to you to lay the groundwork about what's OK and what isn't. "Balance is key," says Alkazian. "Acceptance of kids' need to stay in touch with their friends much of the time is important, but limits can also be set. For example, no phone at the dinner table, during family times and so on."
DON'T: Allow Negativity
Although Twitter can be a great tool, and Facebook can be a fun way to stay in touch, check in on their social media accounts from time to time. An ill-advised tweet can spread like wildfire, retweeted thousands of times in mere seconds. And that's just one example of the proportion of impact.
"Too often I see teens posting comments on Twitter that make them look silly, put others down, include profanity and complain about their teachers," says Julie Spira, author of The Rules of Netiquette. "It's imperative that parents see what their teens are posting, and delete their accounts if any of this behavior appears on their Twitter stream. Twitter's reach goes beyond the 500 million registered accounts as every update or tweet can be shared and even go viral. It can be damaging to your child's reputation, both online and offline."
DO: Think in Advance
Just before you get out of the car to see Aunt Sue, it is not the right time to say, "OK, no phone for the next three hours." Avoid that argument. "Proactive discussion is important," says Alkazian. "If parents would like their kids to put their phones down at the dinner table, much of the time on vacation or at grandma's house, the request needs to be made in advance and made quite clear." That way, there will be no protesting when the time comes.
DON'T: Let Them Be Careless
It's easy to take comments or photos out of context when you're online. Even if your teen's intentions are innocent, someone else might take a joke seriously—with serious consequences. Talk about what's OK. "Tagging friends in unflattering photos breaks the rules of netiquette," says Spira. "If your teen is holding up a glass of beer, not only does it show bad behavior, but, as they're underage, it's against the law. Treat Twitter like having a happy social circle of friends, and remain positive. A negative comment can be taken out of context. You might want to share your thoughts on a TV show that you're watching, but again, keep all profanity off your social networks." Always encourage positivity, and ask them about the types of things they post. If they squirm, you may want to check it out yourself.
DON'T: Allow an Addiction to Take Root
Just like drugs or alcohol, technology can become a real addiction. "Getting a text or any kind of notification on our phones actually creates a chemical reaction in the brain's pleasure center," says Alkazian. "It says, 'I'm important, and someone loves me'—and that feeling is addictive. That's why helping our kids practice taking time away from their phones is so important."
The most difficult habit to break? Ignoring the phone as it buzzes with a new notification. "We have to be able to tear ourselves away from pleasure in order to take care of the business of life," Alkazian says. "Teach the value of business before pleasure and delayed gratification. These are both essential skills for later success." So, even if it's getting out of the house for a simple walk around the neighborhood sans phone, encourage the separation.
DO: Enforce Your Rules
If you make it clear what your cell and computer rules are, and your kids don't abide by them, then don't hesitate to lay down some parental law. "Let their behavior show you if they can or cannot handle the use of a high-tech, and expensive, piece of gadgetry," says Alkazian. "Unless they have paid for the phone and pay for the full monthly service, parents retain the right to take the phone away." If you see a cycle of bad tech behavior taking root in your teen, you have to stop it before it consumes his life. Limit the amount of time he can have the phone at home, or only allow him to check Facebook messages for an hour at night.
Emailing might not be a huge thing for your teen now, but it will become crucial in the working world and as he starts preparing for college."Keep them short and include both a subject line and a signature line," says Spira. "Teens should keep all acronyms and emoticons out of their emails to adults and teachers, as eventually they'll be sending emails for summer jobs, camp applications, and even private school or college applications." Encourage best practices. They will need the skills someday!
DO: Encourage Use of New Media
In this new age of technology, getting started early can be key. Who knows? Your teen may master Twitter and turn it into a marketing career. For now, if they want accounts, encourage them to be safe and keep it fun. "Twitter is a conversation that many are enjoying," says Spira. "Share happy and interesting times. A family vacation, a birthday photo, an award that you've won at school, your first football game. Keep it upbeat and positive."
DON'T: Forget Their Digital Footprints
Some teens think the Internet is a wonderful retreat where authority figures aren't watching, and they can behave as they'd like. Talk about how untrue that is, even if the remnants don't turn up for years. Every move she makes online is like writing on the wall in permanent marker: It's there forever. "Parents should have a serious heart-to-heart talk about digital topics with their teens. Discuss cyberbullying, posting inappropriate photos, and sending sexting shots to their friends," says Spira. "Remember, every time they post, it creates a permanent digital footprint and you can't take it back. Make sure you remind your teens to behave the same way online as you would offline."
DON'T: Think Your Teen Isn't Sexting
Beware: Sexting isn't just for adult politicians anymore. It's becoming a fad among teens. "A University of Utah study showed that 20% of teens have sent a sext message on their mobile phones," Spira says. "And 25% of those who received a sext actually forwarded to another friend. Some teens even sleep with their cell phone in bed with them. Parents must discuss this issue with their children to avoid permanent damage to their reputation."
DON'T: Always Text, Tweet or Message ... Talk!
Encourage your teen to talk on the phone. Many are tentative when it comes to answering calls, because they're used to sending texts to friends. But chatting on the phone is a real-world skill they'll need in the workplace and in their relationships. "Telephones still have a valid place for having a conversation," says Spira. "If parents call, pick up the phone and speak with them rather than sending it to voicemail and responding with a text. There's still no replacement for the human voice, where you can hear the tone of the conversation." Get them to practice the skill; have them pick up the phone every time you call.
Like texts, don't let the Internet become a guise either. Encourage kids to use face-to-face technology with their friends, too. "If you're having an online conversation or chat with someone, use the video chat feature to see their face," she says. "FaceTime, gchat and Skype conversations will help you see the other person in real time."
DO: Remind Them About Authenticity
The reality is that your child might meet casual acquaintances online one day—but that doesn't mean they "know" them. Help them understand that. "Unfortunately the World Wide Web has become the Wild Wild West," Spira says. "Anyone can create an email or chat account and pretend to be older, a different gender or younger. Don't assume what you see is what you're really getting."
Even if you've told them not to talk to people they don't know online, insist that if they make a mistake, you'd rather know than not know. "If they ever feel uncomfortable about where a conversation is leading, whether it's sexual or asking for money, tell them to let you or teachers know immediately and to delete their account," Spira says.