Keeping it in the family
As teenagers become more at ease with electronic communication and online postings, there is a great temptation to relax, to open up and reveal more about themselves than they would ever dream of divulging in a more formal environment.
Chat rooms and social networking sites encourage such behavior. Almost every site a teenager visits on the web asks them to create a profile: "Tell us about your interests...your likes and dislikes. Tell us who your friends are. Above all, post pictures! Pictures of you, your friends, your family. Better still, post videos! And don't forget the crazy and embarrassing videos. In fact, the crazier the better, so they can be enjoyed by thousands of people you've never met!"
Starting to get the picture? When you have this easy-to-use, easy-to-share environment and you add in a typical teenager's impulsiveness and natural sense of invincibility, then you get a recipe for disaster.
And disasters there have been - most of them well-publicized in local and national publications. From kids exchanging naked pictures of themselves on cell phones to teenage pageant queens posting racy spring break photos on Facebook, the voyeuristic press is only too happy to jump on stories of vulnerable teenagers letting their guard down.
And that's just the 15 minutes of fame that you read about. A lot of these indiscretions can have lasting consequences for the individuals concerned. How they are perceived in the school hallways or on campus. How their relationships with friends and family can change forever. How it can affect their career prospects, as more and more companies make a thorough Internet search part of their standard hiring practices.
Teens as representatives of the family
So what advice can parents give to teenagers who are always online and see social networking sites as just an extension of their school yard chatter?
Well, offering them some evidence of the harm that has been done to other kids through inappropriate online actions is always a good place to start. As much as kids may like to see other kids in embarrassing situations, one talent that most kids have is the ability to imagine themselves in a similarly awkward situation and say: "Thank God that's not me!" So go ahead - a little scaremongering from parents can sometimes be a good idea.
Plus, foster and encourage your children's sense of family and self-worth. When they become teenagers, they assume some responsibility for representing the family. In the digital age, that responsibility extends far beyond how they interact with a few friends and neighbors. Stress the importance of your child's online reputation as well as their school or neighborhood reputation. The Internet is a very unforgiving environment and "mistakes" are almost impossible to correct.
Above all, get involved and make their early online activity a family affair. Be encouraging when they suggest starting their first Facebook or MySpace page. It's much better to say yes and be involved than to say no and drive it underground. Help them take pictures and write profiles they can be proud of and check out the people they have "friended".
Finally, make them feel that those early moves to social networking are family-orientated and family-approved. Hopefully, the family-values will stick with them as they continually broaden their Internet horizons. It's the greatest protection a teenager can have.