Dr. Kristin Schaefer-Schiumo| Manhasset NY

Teach Your Teens That Smartphones Are Not Weapons.

At this point, many parents and teens are aware of the emotional and physical dangers of cyberbullying. Repeated and necessary conversations and interventions have been had around the importance of not using a smartphone as a weapon against peers. But what about against ones own family? Yes, you are reading correctly. Despite our best intentions, I continue to see teens leveraging their smartphones as weapons against family and peers alike, leaving social and emotional devastation in their wake. You may think this statement overly dramatic, but my years in practice as a psychologist tell me this is a very accurate characterization.
I recently spoke with a single mother of two who learned firsthand the dangers of a smartphone as weapon. Her 17 year-old son, angry because he was told he could not spend an unsupervised weekend with friends, video recorded his mother verbally disciplining his 15 year-old sister who had arrived home drunk the evening before. Then, without thinking, he posted that interaction to social media and basked in the "glow" of the likes, views, and shares he received. But of course he hadn't stopped to consider the harm and pain that posting this video caused his family. His mom, a professional in our small community, was negatively impacted by this window into her personal life, despite the fact that her own behaviors were appropriate and on point.
Teens are not always clear thinking beings. Their brains have not yet developed the ability of foresight, good judgement, planning, and impulse control. In fact, the parts of the brain controlling these cognitive abilities have almost another decade of significant developing to do! Now, add to this mix that many teens have a desire to be popular or cool, or to seek attention. Think about it, a smartphone is a very easy and quick way to achieve these goals. That is why it is so critical for parents and other adults to educate teens on the potential for hurting others in pursuit of their own gain. It is also why it is vital to monitor teen smartphone use.
Now imagine you have a 16 year-old daughter who decides, with her friend, to secretly video record conversations at a party this summer. Suppose they videotape a group of popular girls saying cruel, unkind and mean things about others not at the party. Now picture your daughter and her friend posting that video up on Facebook, Instagram, or SnapChat for all to see. Doing this hurts the gossipers, who likely presumed their comments would not go public, as well as those being gossiped about. As you might expect, such behavior causes a great deal of pain and often tears apart friendships.
As parents, most can agree that those doing the gossiping are in the wrong. But what about those doing the videotaping? Oftentimes the parents of the videographers blame only those who spoke the mean words, believing that sharing negative behavior is the right thing to do. But let's examine that assumption more closely. Of course it is important to disclose negative, abusive or destructive behaviors if the intention is to stop it and to protect others. With that in mind, it is clear that when teens share such behavior via social media it is most often done with the intention of embarrassing, belittling, or humiliating another; as such, it is never the right response. Instead, taking the video to a school counselor, school administrator, a parent or another reliable adult support system demonstrates a true desire to be helpful. It is critical that parents and other responsible adults help children and teens to see the difference.
As our children move through adolescence and into adulthood, college admissions officers, employers, and potential professional clients are increasingly researching social media presence. So, it is critical that we teach our children and teens that their social media footprint should be positive and appropriate. It should never include posts or videos of them drunk, naked, acting out of control or treating others cruelly. Likewise, whether through thoughtlessness or vindictiveness, when similar videos are posted of family and friends they are rarely removable once the videos are viewed and shared. Thus the emotional trauma and damage to ones reputation become permanent.
Of course, it is our job to teach our children to behave appropriately and to be kind. But it is also true that teens, and adults, make mistakes. We lose our tempers, we say things we shouldn't. But as human beings we all have a right to privacy. If you discover that your teen does not have the maturity to use their smartphone appropriately, by all means disarm them. Yes, they will be angry but it is far better to manage that than risk their own emotional pain or the pain of others for many years to come.