What Teenagers Need From Parents: Understand the Challenges of Technology

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Recently TGC ran an article that caught our attention at the Rooted blog. “What Teens Need from Parents: A Counselor’s Perspective” suggests six insights counselor Leia Joseph has received through working with teens and families. We liked her list so much we decided to explore each point separately, and we’ll add a couple of ideas of our own. We hope Joseph’s guidance – and ours – is helpful to you as you love and lead your teenagers.

When I was a teen, I spent many afternoons at my friend’s house. We’d arrive after school, rummage through the pantry for our favorite snacks (anything filled with artificial colors and flavors!), plop down in front of the wooden television set and watch the latest music videos of our favorite big hair bands. Later that night, we’d call each other on the phone. I’d use the one in the hallway outside my bedroom, snaking its mustard yellow spiral cord underneath my door for privacy—assuming no one else was using it—and we’d talk for hours about anything and everything.

Much has changed in the life of teens since that time; much more has changed in technology. The challenges, temptations, and issues our teens must navigate in the age of the smartphone are mind-boggling for those of us who still remember when phones were mounted to the wall. Even more, our teens need parents who understand these challenges and are intentional to walk alongside them in it.

The Way Teens Communicate Today

My husband recently assumed that one of our teens communicates with his friends by talking on the phone. He was wrong. Teens today don’t call each other; they are likely to use an app to communicate. For those of us who remember how foundational long conversations over the telephone were to our adolescence, this is totally foreign. It seems like an entire form of communication has been cast aside all together for a visual medium, where teens connect via abbreviated text, memes, and images.

This doesn’t mean their form of communication is wrong, but it does pose some challenges. Parents today need to have ongoing dialogue with their teens about what these digital conversations entail, including the kinds of images and videos they share with one another. Are they appropriate? Do they honor and glorify God? Teens should be aware that digital conversations remain out there in the world. Their friends can potentially screenshot their messages and share it with others. Parents must teach teens to only share what they would want anyone else to read—a good rule for us all!

Like adults today, teens also connect with their friends through social media. While much of the over 40 crowd dominates Facebook, teens have their own preferred social media outlets, most notably Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok. All social media use comes with risk. There is always the concern of online predators pretending to be someone they are not in order to draw unaware teens into their net. There are also the privacy concerns we all face with social media use. Finally, there are the risks to a teen’s heart. When they scroll through images of their friends, there is the temptation to compare themselves and to believe they aren’t beautiful enough, athletic enough, smart enough, or simply just not enough. In addition, when teens scroll through images their friends share, they see firsthand when they were not invited to an event, and they feel left out and rejected.

It’s no secret there is an increase in teen depression and anxiety. Some theorize it is linked to social media use, though more research needs to be done. What appears to be clear, is that the more parents are involved with their teens in navigating social media use, the better the outcome. Whatever decisions parents and teens make regarding social media use, it is important that such decisions are made intentionally and for the glory of God.

Communicating with Your Teen about Technology

Many parents in our culture treat the smart phone like they do sexual activity; they simply expect and assume their teens will participate in it. Instead of being intentional with their teens about how they engage technology, they passively let their teens use it without any limits. This does not have to be the case. Just like with other things in life, this truth applies: just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. Just because an app or social media network is available, it doesn’t mean our teens need to participate in it. As my mother used to ask, “If your friend jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump too?” Intentionality is key. Rather than passively parenting our children in their technology use, we need to be intentional to help them work through what they participate in, how they participate in it, and why.

As parents, it is important that we have open dialogue with our teens about the risks of smartphone use. We need to talk about the visual temptations that come with its use and about the fact that you can never unsee something you’ve seen. We can help them by installing technology to protect them, such as Covenant Eyes, Disney’s Circle, or Canopy. We also need to talk about the heart’s tendency to compare oneself with others—to compare our looks, our experiences, our talents, our friendships—and how such comparison breeds idolatry. When our teens find themselves struggling with such temptations, we need to walk alongside them, helping them process it through the gospel— reminding them that their identity and meaning is found not in what others think of them, but in who they are because of Christ’s work for them on the cross.

We need to talk about how friendship is more than “liking” something someone posted—that real friendship includes acts of service, listening to hard things, and encouraging one another in the gospel. We need to talk about what it looks like to glorify God in the words we use, the images we post, and the topics of conversation we engage in. We also need to help them think through how they use their time and the ways in which smartphone use might keep them from engaging in real life with real people.

Technology is always changing. What is popular today will be unpopular tomorrow. We need to stay up to date on how teens use technology today. We need to walk alongside our teens, giving them the tools to navigate this ever-changing landscape. We also need to keep the conversation going with them, helping them process their technology use through the wisdom of God’s word.

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