Getting Your Child to Talk to you About What They see Online

Perhaps the only thing harder than getting kids to eat their vegetables is getting them to open up about what happens online.  

A recent study in the UK reported that an overwhelming majority of kids would tell a teacher if they saw something bad happen to another student in person.  The same study reported that only about a third would tell a teacher if they saw something online that upset them. Parents did not fare much better, with the majority of kids saying that they would not tell their parents, either.

Why is this the case?

There are a number of factors which come into play here.  At the top of the list is likely that teens are worried that parents will overreact and take away their devices.  Related to that is that they don’t expect that adults can relate to how important social media is to them. And they’re right!  Parents of teenagers cannot realize how important social media is to them because they have no firsthand experience in the matter.

In 2015, CNN did a great report called #Being13.  They worked with teens, with parental consent, for a full year, seeing what they did online.  CNN had full access to everything the teens did online. The results were stunning – even knowing that CNN was monitoring what was happening, some kids still engaged in cyberbullying and other inappropriate actions.

To help you understand how they feel about social media, here are a few quotes from teens who were part of the study:

“I don’t think parents and teachers understand why social media matters so much to kids my age. They don’t get that everything relies on how we look in a picture, how many likes/followers we have, if we get a comment back from someone, etc.”

“I would rather not eat for a week than get my phone taken away.  It’s really bad.”

“Oh well, it (being cut off from his friends) happens a lot because my mom keeps taking away my phone. I guess sometimes I feel like I am not able to talk with anyone. I feel sort of like cut off from all my friends, because I am not going to be able to talk to them to see what they are doing.”

“My parents would ground me from my phone before they would ground me like into my room, because I am constantly always on it. If I am disconnected from that, I just feel like I have nothing to do.”

“I don’t like dealing with things face to face because it’s really easy to hide behind your phone.”

The feelings about how important social media should be clear to you now.  During the televised show, CNN reported that 58% of teens would rather be grounded than have their phone taken away from them.

So, how do parents get their kids to open up to them?  Because they really do want you to know what happens to them.  They’re just afraid that their parents won’t be able to relate and will overreact to what they find out about what happens online.

Parents may not get their children to initiate the conversation about what happens online, but that doesn’t mean that the conversation can’t happen.  It just means that parents need to be smarter about how they get the conversation started.

Here are some suggestions:

Ask the Questions the Right Way

Avoid the urge to “pounce” on a child at the first opportunity if you see questionable activity.  Instead, calm down and be sure to ask your questions in a way that are more likely to get real answers.  By that, I mean avoid asking questions that allow teens from simply providing one-word answers, such as “yes” or “no”.

Instead, ask open-ended questions that require the child to think about an answer and avoid one-word answers.

For example, instead of asking if they’ve ever seen anyone getting attacked online, ask them how often they see it happen.  They can still answer in a single word, such as, “never”, but they are more likely to seriously consider the question and answer honestly.  Other suggestions include:

  • How do you respond when you see something inappropriate online, such as cyberbullying?
  • How often do you see someone sending inappropriate images?
  • What upsets you the most online?
  • Can you explain to me what a catfish is?
  • Which social media apps do you no longer use and why?
  • Who would you come to if you saw something that upset you online?
  • What can I do to help you online?
  • What parts of social media do you like/dislike the most?

Never Respond Online to Bad Behavior

When you were younger, did your parents ever scold you in front of your friends?  How did it make you feel? Now consider that something like that happens, but it’s saved for posterity because it was done online.  The Internet never forgets.

If a parent does see something online that upsets them done by their child, avoid the temptation of responding online.  This will only embarrass them and encourage them to start hiding their online actions from their parents. Many teens have multiple accounts on the same platform, otherwise known as Finstagramming.  These accounts can be used to attack others in anonymity, but are often used to keep adults unaware of what they are really doing online.

Speak with your Child, not at your Child

Best-selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey, once said that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen to with the intent to reply.”  While he was speaking about people in business, the same principle applies to parenting.

When speaking about what happens online, it is important to realize that parents should be having a (two-way) conversation, not a (one-way) lecture.  Speaking AT a child instead of WITH a child is an inevitable way to ensure that they never bring up the topic again. Or any other topic, for that matter.

Getting children to open up about their online lives can prevent problems before they get out of hand.  Parents want to make sure that they are having discussions with their kids on a regular basis before a stranger online begins talking to them and convinces them to do things that are not in their best interest, otherwise known as “grooming” them.

In this case, an ounce of prevention is not worth a pound of cure.  It’s worth an immeasurable amount of cure!

About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cybersafety advocate for several years. He is an adjunct professor at Thomas Jefferson University. He is certified by the US Centers for Disease Control in Bullying Prevention and is the cyberbullying advisor to Fifty Shades of Purple against Bullying. He is also the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity, which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016.

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