Tag Archives: communication

Snapchat, sexting and common sense: What parents need to know

www.snapchat.comA big challenge of parenting in a digital age is keeping up to date with the technologies our kids are using. Truth is, it’s time-consuming and constantly changing. Hard to fit that extra learning and guidance into schedules already crammed with carpools, swimming lessons, last-minute dinners and never-ending piles of laundry. And the reality for plenty of moms and dads is that they need their eight-year-old to figure out why the printer isn’t working or set up the PVR, never mind helping them wade through a gazillion levels of Facebook privacy controls.

In many families, kids way outmatch their parents when it comes to technology.

So when the New York Times or your local paper runs an article about teens getting into trouble with some new app or social media tool, parents tend to have one of four reactions:

  1. Denial. Oh god. My kid would NEVER get involved in anything like that. S/he’s way too smart.
  2. Panic. Oh god. My kid is going to get into SO much trouble with that. I have no idea how to even begin making sure s/he is safe. I feel totally overwhelmed by how dangerous our world is. 
  3. Procrastination. Oh god. One more thing to worry about. I should talk to him/ her and see if they know about this. But I’m so busy and they will just roll their eyes and groan, and I haven’t heard anyone I know mention it. I’ll do it soon and hope for the best in the meantime. 
  4. Cursory check-in. Oh god. I better ask them if they know anything about this. No? Really? Great. Nice talking to you. 

None of these are particularly helpful. Even worse, numbers one through three will actually interfere with your relationship with your teen. Number four makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but you are setting yourself up to be shut down. Few teens appreciate the lines of direct questioning that will inevitably lead to lectures or more rules. Totally ineffective, but lets you mentally check it off your List of Things to Talk About.

So what does work? Two things: education and communication.

Take Snapchat, for example. This picture-sharing app allows users to send images and control how long the viewer can see it, up to 10 seconds. After that, the picture supposedly disappears and can’t be seen again.

It’s possible to imagine a million fun, silly and totally benign uses of such an app. But it’s also possible to see how the temporary nature of the image would appeal to those who want to share sexually suggestive images (often called sexting). It gives the appearance of being a totally safe way to do it. After all, after a few seconds, there’s no trace of your wild side left to haunt you.


Maybe not. While the site is set up to notify you if a user tries to screen grab the image, it’s not clear if they can actually prevent someone from trying to do so. And even if they have put in that kind of control, I can practically guarantee there are computer whiz kids out there trying to hack their way through those controls as I type. Furthermore, as the New York Times blogger Nick Bilton notes, there is nothing to prevent a user from snapping a picture of the photo on the screen using a different camera.

How big a problem is sexting for our kids anyway? Hard to tell. Lots of anecdotal evidence but very little good quality research out there. Bilton cites a yet-to-be released  Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project that shows 6% of adult Americans admitting to having sent a sexually suggestive or nude picture of themselves, but only 3% of American teens. Another 15% of adults admitted they had been on the receiving end of that kind of image.

This seems to suggest sexting is not nearly as big a problem as the media make it out to be. However, I do a lot of work with high school principals and teachers who would swear that figure is vastly underreported. Some of them say they deal with sexting in their schools (and the related bullying and behavioural issue) on a regular basis.

I’m not going to wade into this one. It’s not my intention to fan any kind of moral panic or hysteria concerning the hypersexuality of teens. What I am interested in is helping parents keep kids safe and using technology in productive, creative and respectful ways. The guidelines I advise in this case are the same ones I’ve always proposed:

  • Talk to your kids. Often. About everything. In the car on the way to hockey practice. In the kitchen after dinner. Late at night when they are going to bed.
  • Listen when they talk to you. Don’t cut in. Don’t have an answer for everything. Don’t offer unsolicited opinions. 
  • Know all accounts and passwords for your pre-teens and young teens.
  • Make sure they understand that their freedom online (and with cellphones) is a privilege to be earned through consistent, responsible behaviour.
  • With pre-teens and young teens, periodically review their accounts and cellphone materials with them (not behind their backs).
  • Talk about things like sexting, even if it’s embarrassing and they’d rather die. They often don’t understand the many, many ways these images can be humiliating, hurtful and destructive.
  • Tell them never to write or post anything they don’t want their parents to see. 
  • Tell them they must always be respectful to others.

Sticks & Stones: Practical Strategies for Communicating with Parents About Bullying Issues

Workshop posterTeachers and school administrators consistently tell me that one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with bullying issues is communicating with parents. Parents of the bullies, for sure, but also parents of the kids who are targeted, and the kids who witness bullying events in the schoolyard, the playground or online.

Parents want what’s best for their children, of course. But sometimes this concern — and the emotions bound up with it — can interfere with proactive attempts to educate students about bullying, to give them the tools to protect themselves and stand up for others, and stop doing or saying things that are upsetting or harmful to others. Parents of kids who are aggressive to others are sometimes unable to admit to themselves that their child is being hurtful, and they tend to be very defensive and resistant when principals or teachers call them in to discuss this.

Students quickly pick up on the tension between their parents and the school, and this tends to muddy or render ineffective any anti-bullying messages that might otherwise sensitize kids to this important issue.

This one-day workshop is oriented towards developing practical strategies for school personnel involved in this kind of communication with parents. We will look at proactive, preventative communication (before anything occurs, to establish school policies and protocols, and to involve them as stakeholders), at developing sample scripts for phone calls and written communication, at negotiation strategies to get past defensiveness, anger and confusion and move everyone to consensus or acceptance. Clearly defined policies can go a long way to lessening stress and aggravation for all concerned.

Email donna.wilkinson@mcgill.ca or call her at 514-398-6961 for more information and registration forms.


Shut up and listen (and 6 other ways to get your teen to talk to you)

Listen to your teen.Our twin daughters turned 13 this past Sunday, launching us full tilt into the world of teen parenting. And as I watch my not-so-little girls make their way down the path to adulthood, I’ve noticed a change in the ways they communicate with us.

Gone is the constant singing and non-stop chatter about everything and anything. We no longer get a running narration of their lives or spontaneous breakdowns of the minutiae of their experiences at school or camp (“and then she said that was silly and he said that was funny and then we ate crackers and we read that book with the tree and the dog in it and then we played tag, but he tagged me too hard and I fell over and then…”).

Drawing them out about some of the stuff that interests me as a parent — their friends, their inner world, their fears and hopes — has become increasingly difficult to do.

It’s normal, I know. And it’s even healthy. Distinguishing themselves from their parents and building their own identities is part of the serious work of adolescence.

But it’s so hard. Because just as they begin this retreat, the issues they may face get more serious. While I loved hearing about their little kid thoughts, I need to know about their teenage concerns. I want them to be able to keep talking to me, to keep those all important lines of dialogue open.

Turns out that getting your teens to talk to you isn’t impossible, it just requires some finesse and a different approach than you might have used in their elementary school years.

Shut your mouth and listen. When your teen starts talking, resist any temptation to teach, lecture, criticize or even solve their problems. Unless they directly ask for advice, what they want most of all is your genuine interest and loving acceptance.

Ask them about their music. Even if it sounds like someone torturing the cat. Even if you need to load up on Advil before you let them press play. Remember what you loved as a teen and how it made you feel understood? (Was it Duran Duran? Air Supply? Bon Jovi? English Beat? the Beastie Boys?) Music speaks to teens on precisely the emotional level we are so desperate to access as parents. Ask your son or daughter to play their favourite song or share their favourite lyrics. Be very careful not to show the slightest bit of contempt or criticism or you will lose all credibility.

Avoid direct questions. Your tween or teen will automatically shut down in the face of direct questioning. Even something as innocent as “How was your day?” may be met with suspicion or dismissal. Find something to compliment them on. Make a (positive) statement about a movie you think they’d like, a neighbour they know, about school or camp or a sale at their favourite clothing store. Ask them about a skateboarding term, or a sports team, or the complicated premise behind The Bachelorette.

Avoid eye contact. Teens (especially boys) can feel challenged when parents or authority figures make direct eye contact, and they may be difficult to draw out. Some of my best conversations with my mom when I was in high school occurred when we cleaned up the kitchen after dinner. Driving anywhere in the car is also great for conversations, or tackling difficult issues.

Keep it casual. Your kids dread the idea of a big formal “talk” about a serious topic (drugs, sex, alcohol, Facebook, etc.) as much as you do. And they automatically shut down when they hear a lecture coming. Effective communication about these issues will happen in small increments over many years. Instead of a series of serious sit-downs, try to communicate your values, attitudes and rules in more casual conversations over time.

Lie next to them at bedtime. The fabulous Scott Fried, author of My Invisible Kingdom: Letters from the Secret Lives of Teens, talks about how we all give up our secrets in the dark (which also explains the intimacy draw of teen sex). Once upon a time you lay next to your child at bedtime and read them stories. When did that stop? Your 14-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter are not too big for you to lay down next to them once in a while. Enjoy their closeness for a few minutes. Don’t say anything. Let the silence draw them out. You won’t be sorry.

Remember that “talk” comes in many forms. I recently watched one of our older daughters and my husband (a man of few words) sit together on our dock at the lake and play with a remote control boat. The conversation went like this:

Daughter: Wow, it’s so fast!
Dad: Yup. Pretty cool. See if you can send it all the way to the rocks.
[occasional laughter and hoots of pleasure]
Dad: Was camp alright?
Daughter: Yeah, it was good.
[Daughter rests her head on Dad’s shoulder.]

That’s it. Totally awesome. I realized I could learn something from that, given my usual tendency to constant commentary. Shared quiet company. Similar to watching a hockey game together or watching the same crappy TV show. Sometimes simple pleasant togetherness speaks volumes.

It turns out you don’t always have to be talking to communicate. And listening is actually more important (and harder) than talking. Take advantage of the slower pace of summer to try these out, and let me know how it goes.

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