Parents who first began using the Internet when they were in college or when they got their first office job can sometimes find it challenging to fully understand the allure that it holds for teenagers. Older people may be more accustomed to using the Internet just for doing research for university projects or to help them do their jobs. Their maturity and better judgment can help them avoid the many frivolous and time-sucking websites that compete for people’s attention when they go online.
Teens, however, use the Internet for a wide variety of activities, some of which are wholesome and useful to help them learn, and some of which may distract them from their studies or encourage them to get into trouble.
While your teen uses the Internet to help him do homework, he is also likely going online to stay in constant contact with friends and online buddies as well as search and browse for entertainment. There are millions of temptations on the Internet, ranging from viral videos, banal “status updates” of friends describing what mood they are in or what they ate for breakfast and online games that offer an endless escape from reality.
As a parent, you need to ask yourself when you need to intervene in your teen’s Internet usage. For example, is your kid spending too much time using social media, hanging out in chat rooms all day or sending out a steady stream of tweets, text messages and posts to blogs? You’ll know it’s time to intervene when Internet usage becomes more important than doing homework, performing household chores or spending time in the real world with friends and family.
What warning signs should you look for concerning your teen’s Internet usage? Is your teen failing to get sufficient sleep because he is staying up all night surfing the net, playing games or hanging out in chat rooms? Staring at a bright screen too close to bedtime is stimulating and can make it difficult to fall asleep. The excitement of playing a violent game or the thrill of jumping from one website to another in a web surfing marathon can also keep your teen too wired to get a good night’s sleep.
Teens are notorious for keeping silent about their activities. How many times have you heard a mere grunt or a monosyllabic response to questions about how your teen’s day went? If your kid keeps quiet at the dinner table but then goes into the bedroom and starts posting detailed descriptions of the day’s events online, you’ll have to find out why he is being so secretive.
If you allow your teen access to a credit card, examine it carefully for signs of purchases made over the Internet for goods or services that you may not approve of. It’s possible that your teen could also use a credit card to play poker and other casino games online, which could be a sign of a serious gambling problem.
Too Lenient or Too Strict?
We want our children to be curious and feel free to explore the full range of humanity’s accumulated knowledge, while keeping them safe from material that is violent, sexual or promotes illegal activities.
If you give your teen little or zero guidance on how to use the Internet responsibly, how can you expect him to avoid the many pitfalls and temptations? One simple method you can try is to ask your teen to imagine that you are sitting next to him while he surfs the net. Does he really want to click on that link for a website showing objectionable material, knowing that his parents will be disappointed or appalled?
However, if you are overly strict with your teen’s Internet usage, your efforts to protect him could backfire. Your teen can behave while at home, but then go to an unsupervised friend’s house to view objectionable material or hang out in questionable chat rooms. Preferentially you want your teen to use the Internet at home with a modicum of supervision, such as the understanding that you will review the browser history on a regular basis.
If you are concerned that your teen is spending too much time pursuing entertainment or otherwise engaging in unproductive activities, you have options to change his or her behavior. If you haven’t already sat down to talk with your teen about how to use the Internet responsibly, you need to do so as soon as possible. For example, you might allow your teen to spend one hour watching video clips, but only after finishing homework.
You can install software on your teen’s computer that regulates how much time he can spend online, as well as shut down the computer after a 10-minute warning, ensuring that the flickering screen won’t keep him up all night. If you are concerned that your teen is looking at pornography or other illegal material, you can use software that blocks access to inappropriate content.
If you don’t install monitoring software on the computer, your teen may figure out how to erase their browser history to keep you from seeing the sites he visits and the kinds of questions he types into search engines. If your kid continues to access material that you deem to be offensive, you can remove the computer from the bedroom. Requiring your teen to access the Internet from a computer in a common room can help you keep a better eye on what he’s doing online.
Remember that teenagers don’t need a desktop or laptop computer to access the Internet. Smartphones and tablets enable kids to browse websites, exchange email and text messages and even conduct live video chats for free. If you want your kid to have a phone for emergencies but don’t want him to use it for unsupervised Internet access, enable parental controls on the device before giving it to him.
Elli is a writer for Your Local Security, an online authority in the home security system industry. She writes about child safety, parenting tips, home improvement and renovation techniques, as well as house and home protection.