How are mobile & digital media shaping parent/teen relationships?

SNS and mobile phones can provide powerful ways for parents to stay connected to their teens. But what happens when things go wrong?

By Lynn Schofield Clark, Ph.D.

It’s become a familiar story: parents using Facebook as way to publicly discipline their children. Recently, we’ve seen the parents in Wisconsin who took away their daughter’s phone and then good-naturedly flooded her Facebook page with goofy photos.

But before this, there was the mom who replaced her 13-year-old daughter’s profile photo with a picture that featured the words, “I do not know how to keep my…. (red x over the daughter’s mouth). I am no longer allowed on FB or my phone. Please ask why. My mom says I have to answer everyone that asks.”

And another mom who posted on Facebook a photo of her 12-year-old daughter holding a sign that read, “Since I want to post photos of me holding liquor, I am obviously not ready for social media and will be taking a hiatus until I learn what I should and should not post. Bye Bye.”
Perhaps most famous in the “Facebook tough love” parenting genre is Tommy Jordan, the North Carolinian who fired nine shots into his 15-year-old daughter’s laptop in February 2012 in retaliation for the negative things she’d said about her parents on her Facebook page.

Such approaches are necessary, some have argued, in order to help young people to recognize the public and permanent nature of the negative messages they choose to post online. And clearly, teens and tweens are online and on the phone. There are now more than 800 million of us on Facebook, and fully 7.5 million joined under the age of 13. Moreover, 22% of all teens log onto social network sites more than 10 times each day. Half log on at least once each day. “We have to meet kids where they are,” as the mother of one of these punished daughters explained.

Meting out punishment online is just the latest form of openness and information sharing that’s become a standard way of life for many adults, as one recent study on privacy found. Apparently 40% of U.S. adults have little concerns about privacy for themselves or their children, according to that study.

Yet despite the new media twist, the parents in these examples are embracing a fairly traditional view of parental authority and punishment. Public humiliation has deep roots in several cultural traditions. During the Puritan era in the U.S., for instance, wrongdoers were subject to public floggings and time spent in wooden stocks. Children in the U.S. colonial era wore “dunce” caps to display their inability to perform adequately in schools. In Eastern societies, offenders had their heads shaved and were paraded around town on a donkey. These are forms of punishment meant to decrease undesirable behavior.

But is this form of discipline effective?

The psychologist B.F. Skinner argued more than forty years ago that such punishment can be effective in some situations, but cautioned that people need to weigh such punishments against possible negative consequences. For instance, the punished child might be more cautious in posting disrespectful messages online, but she might also learn that humiliating others is a good response when she is similarly disrespected by others online.

Facebook tough love certainly isn’t the only approach to disciplining online indiscretions. There’s also been a fair amount of media attention paid to well-meaning parents who try to prevent their children from engaging in negative online behaviors in the first place, usually by monitoring their online and texting activities. They also worry about the risks that the online and mobile environment might pose. Criticized as “helicopter parents,” these parents want to send their teens the message that they are looking out for their best interests. They are always in the background, ready to offer guidance for the young people who might need it (see “Big Brother? No, It’s Parents,”New York Times, June 25, 2012)

And like their parents, young people also aren’t always concerned about privacy. According to a Pew Internet and American Life study, 77% of parents have checked the sites that their children have visited, 66% of parents have checked to see what information on their children is publicly available online and nearly two-thirds of young people under the age of 17 are fine with having their parents as friends on social network sites.

So is this monitoring approach to discipline better?

Sometimes, teens in these families get the wrong message. They learn that their parents may be so willing to look out for and forgive them that they are rather easily manipulated. One teen in my interviews, for instance, described how she turned her mother’s concern for her into a source of guilt. She strategically used her mobile phone, texting her mother just before her curfew, but after she knew her mother would be asleep. As she explained, “That way, the next day when she asks why I didn’t get home by midnight, I can say, ‘well, I texted you at 11:45 to tell you that I’d be home late and when you didn’t reply I figured it was ok.’” Her mother, seeing the text the next morning, expressed appreciation for her daughter’s conscientious effort to let her know that she was all right. No harm done, the mother figured – except that her daughter’s disrespectful actions toward her parents’ stated rules went unacknowledged.

One thing that tough love and helicopter parenting have in common, then, is that both approaches are related to parental intention as well as to issues of parental authority. In the first examples, parents are attempting to assert their authority and demand respect, and they are using social network sites as a public platform through which to enact their desires. They see their children as strong enough to “take it” when they get the punishment that their parents believe they earned. In the second situation, parents see their children as capable of being strong and self-sufficient, but they also see them as vulnerable. Sometimes, parents in these families came from authoritarian families and do not want to repeat what they saw as their own parents’ overly punitive approaches. They might use the mobile or social network sites as a way of allowing their children to reach them at any time, which they see as a sign that they are giving their children the respect that they deserve. But both approaches can have consequences. While in the first instance, children might end up feeling disrespected by the parents’ responses, in the second, the parents might end up feeling disrespected as their children manipulate the situation to suit themselves.

What’s interesting about the new media context, however, is that it opens the possibility for greater mutuality in our relationships with one another, because it allows us to have more information about one another and to express more ongoing concern for one another than ever before. We can get glimpses into the inner worlds of those we care about and can, with motivation, come to gain an appreciation for that person’s frame of reference by spending more time listening and observing than speaking and telling. This is not an easy or automatic process, caution Linda Hartling and Jean Baker Miller, formerly of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley University. Yet as they write, “when both people feel seen, known, heard, and respected in a relationship, they begin to generate mutual empowerment.” Mutual empowerment is a two-way process of relating that allows each person to feel that he or she can influence the shape of the relationship. An approach of mutuality is therefore not about parental intention alone so much as it is an acknowledgement that parents and their children construct their relationship together, and that their actions within the online and mobile realm are expected to reflect that mutual respect and understanding.

Research into parent/teen relationships online gives support for this approach. In the study Young Canadians in a Wired World, researchers who interviewed both young people aged 11 – 17 and parents of 11-to-17-year-olds concluded, “The teenagers who did share details of their lives with their parents were the ones who were not routinely monitored. Trust in this case was mutual; the parents trusted their children to behave appropriately and the children responded by providing them access to their Facebook page. This suggests that there may be an inverse relationship between surveillance and trust, and that monitoring alone may work against family dialogue.”
In relationships of mutuality, Netiquette experts suggest that parents might want to ask their children before they presume to make things public. “Would you mind if I friended you on FB?” is a good question to ask before attempting to “friend,” just as it’s important to let young people decide when they might want to remove a photo from a parent’s page.

Sometimes, though, teens act like teens and make mistakes, even when they are in these relationships of mutuality. Those cases might warrant an approach of restitution. Restitution is different from both “tough love” and too-quick forgiveness. Unlike forgiveness alone, restitution requires that a person be held accountable; unlike compensatory punishment, restitution points toward restoring the relationship rather than merely paying for crimes committed. The goal in this approach is to help the young person to make amends, not to make them suffer because you suffered. Restitution doesn’t have to happen publicly, although it might.

Young people like to know that their parents are looking out for them, and this generation of young people is growing up with more support than perhaps any previous generation in history. Rather than viewing new media as primarily opening new possibilities for risky behavior, then, parents might want to consider how these technologies can offer us opportunities to build deeper, richer, and longer-lasting relationships of mutuality with those who are most important to us.

What mutuality might look like betwee mother and son

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