By Abigail Judge, Ph.D.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Middle and Upper School families at Beaver in early October. I was invited to present about one of the most challenging aspects of parenting today: how to help teens navigate relationships in our digital age. Unfortunately, much writing on this topic has assumed an alarmist, even panicked tone, which does not help parents or our teens reflect on this topic, let alone talk together. The reality is that most teenagers use social media in the service of healthy development. Teens who struggle offline are more likely to show difficulty online as well, which makes sense since social media is an extension of one’s “real life” relationships. At the same time, social media also presents “high tech dilemmas” that we did not grow up with and which cause understandable concern. This includes the ubiquity of devices, almost constant accessibility and the digital exchange of sexual images. These dilemmas can “de-skill” a parent who may otherwise feel ready for anything. In my talk, I suggested that the best parenting tools have little to do with technology at all.
I described an approach based on what we know about adolescent psychology and development rather that technology per se. This includes tried and true parenting strategies that, I believe, have equal relevance to the digital age. I refer to these strategies as “low-tech solutions”: the importance or your relationship as a buffer when teens inevitably make mistakes on and off-line; modeling your own relationship to technology, sexuality, and intimacy; ways to express curiosity and receptivity when you don’t understand, to name a few. Social media is here to stay and teens are typically one step ahead regarding the latest app or site. Fortunately, staying ahead in this sense is not really the point; the challenge is applying what you already know as parents to an unfamiliar context and partnering with your teen to understand the rest together.
Dr. Judge is a clinical and forensic psychologist in private practice in Cambridge. She is also on staff at MGH and the part-time clinical faculty at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Judge co-edited Adolescent Sexual Behavior in the Digital Age: Considerations for Clinicians, Legal Professionals and Educators (Oxford, 2014). Visit Dr. Judge online at www.abigailjudge.com.