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Talking with Teens about Healthy Online Interactions

The Internet is ‘Real Life’

When people speak face-to-face, they can use social cues to understand each other, like changing their tone of voice or facial expressions. When people interact with each other online, these cues can sometimes be missing, which can lead to feelings of anxiety or hurt when people misunderstand each other.

This is why everyone - and young people especially - sometimes need guidance navigating the complicated world of interaction they find online. Parents can help their teens develop the skills they need to have good outcomes when they use the internet or social media. They can also help them develop a sense of resilience - so that they’re able to move past negative interactions, when they do (maybe inevitably) happen.

Above all, keep an open dialog with your teens. They need to know they can come to you and ask for help. And when they do, there are a lot of ways you can help. It starts by listening, and goes from there to: helping them understand context.

Online Interactions and Building Resilience

By keeping the lines of dialog open, you can help your teen understand that, online or offline, the golden rule still applies: treat people how you would like to be treated.

Whether you talk to someone or DM them, write them a letter or post a comment on their page, the emotional stakes are often the same. You can make someone’s day with a nice comment, or hurt their feelings with an insult.

Parents have a special responsibility here. If your teen is having a negative or heated interaction online, you can help them by staying informed about what happened, and helping them find a way forward. Learn what you can about their experience, validate their feelings and see if they’d like to talk through a response that could lead to a good outcome.

All this is part of learning the skill of resilience – the ability to bounce back from bad things when they happen.

Context Matters

People post content and interact with each other online for all kinds of reasons. When it comes to avoiding misunderstandings, context is the thing that matters most.

Just like people speak to and treat each other differently in different contexts, people online might post one way with their friends, and another way when their parents are watching.

To help young people navigate the online world, spend time with them in the places they spend time. Talk with them about how context changes the meaning of things. Share with your teen ways of building resilience: not assuming the worst, finding and expressing empathy, and seeing the world from someone else’s position.

Young people are especially good at using the language of the internet to express themselves; whether it’s emojis or memes or even just the difference between what it means to “like” or “heart” something. For example, it might not be obvious to all parents, but there’s a big difference between something as simple as saying “okay” and “ok.” (with a period.) You can sometimes say more with a meme, a gif reaction, or an emoji than you can with words.

All this is normal, language is always changing. But when misunderstandings happen, context is usually the culprit. Spend time with your teens talking about the different ways people can express themselves, and the different ways people are understood or misunderstood. You might be surprised to find out: you’ll learn just as much from them as they will from you!

Keep the Conversation Going

Helping teens and young people cultivate positive interactions online can be a long process that can involve a lot of conversation over a period of time. If you need some conversation-starters, bring up topics like:

  • I love you and sometimes I worry about what you have to deal with online. Can we talk about ways to help you respond?
  • Walk me through a recent interaction you had online.
  • When did you feel upset and why?
  • It’s ok to feel sad when sad things happen, it’s ok to feel bad when bad things happen. How can we change the way we use the internet and social media to make things better the next time?

Next topic:

Helping Teens to Be Better Readers of Online Content

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