I’ve had a successful private psychology practice for almost twenty years. Half of my clients are adults and half children and teens. It is not uncommon on the first visit to encounter a motivated parent and a resistant teen. And by “resistant” I mean sullen, unfriendly, and sometimes outright hostile.
My first goal is to ensure that both parents and teens open up and engage with the therapeutic process. Imagine how difficult this is. Each party in the room has different and often opposing agendas. But essentially each wants me to tell the other how wrong they are while assuring them they are right. It’s impossible really.
The teens assume that they are at a serious disadvantage. After all, I’m old and a mother myself. How can I possibly relate to the plight of teens? And consider that they have already accrued some painful experiences with adults in the community who often treat teens unfairly with self-righteous contempt about the “entitlement of kids these days.”
Please join me in a virtual representation of a typical psychotherapy session in my office. Of course this representation is not of an actual client due to confidentiality concerns. Janie is fictional. She is a mosaic of many clients I have seen over the years.
Janie is a 14 year-old girl who was referred for treatment by her pediatrician after her parents checked her texts and discovered that she had a new best friend. The friend is a same-aged girl who lives in another state. The friendship consists of hundreds of texts, images, and videos shared every day for the last two months. Sally, the new bestie, seems like a nice enough girl, except she struggles with some painful psychological issues including anorexia, depression, anxiety, and cutting.
Janie is a compassionate caretaker for Sally and has shared her own secrets over the two-month-long friendship. Janie’s secrets include how angry she is with her stupid parents, how she got drunk last Friday night, how much she wants to lose her virginity . . . and . . . and . . . and . . .
Janie’s parents are devastated. They’d noticed she had become sullen, lost weight, and was being uncharacteristically cruel to them and her little brother over the last month. As a result, they decided to check her texts for the first time, elaborating that they had never had reason to be concerned before. In desperation, they yanked all screen media from Janie immediately and demanded that Janie never speak to Sally again.
Now, they sit across from me pleading with me to tell them what to do.
Parent demand for directive advice often puts me in a rough spot. Unlike popular public perception (thanks Dr. Phil), good psychotherapy is less about advice and more about facilitation and empowerment. Furthermore, when a family presents with an issue like this, there are five potential clients in the room: the daughter, the mother, the father, the marriage, and the family. Everybody needs something from the session, and desperately.
Not only do they all need reassurance and understanding, but they also need strategies, tried and true research-based strategies that are sensible and immediately actionable. They also need hope and healing from shame and guilt.
Prior to creating GetKidsInternetSafe(GKIS), I sometimes found myself blinking at distraught families asking for screen media advice like a well-intentioned, but dense jersey cow. I mean I was fully loaded to help with the relationships, but screen media rules? Yikes!
Ultimately, epidemic screen media issues in my practice and the need for support with my own kids propelled me to launch GetKidsInternetSafe. I worked for a year and a half to develop a state-of-the-art screen media toolkit; a toolkit that my families sorely needed, just like yours might, if not today then definitely tomorrow.
You might still be dying to know, what is the one thing that will destroy your parent-child relationship? One of the most common mistakes parents are making today with their kids is allowing screen media without putting a screen media living agreement in place.
What is a screen media living agreement? It is a written contract that comprehensively addresses any issues that may arise as the result of screen media, including family values, netiquette, rules, and regulations. And it’s a living agreement, because it is designed to be renegotiated and altered over time as issues come up and kids get older.
But how is this possible to develop a contract early enough, since even infants are allowed screen media? Educating yourself BEFORE your children use their first screen is essential. Recognize the risks and benefits of screen media and lay out a plan that allows enrichment but minimizes danger. GetKidsInternetSafe provides lots of free material to get you started, but parents must initiate the process.
What if you blew it and your kids have already been using screen media for awhile, like Janie’s family? Here’s the quick version of the plan I offered for Janie’s family.
In order to untangle screen media risk, a family like Janie’s must cleanse the screen media environment and start over. Lucky for me, most families already come in having already stripped screen media from their teens because if they haven’t, then it’s my job to suggest it. I have to justify it to the teens and quick, or I’ll lose their “like” forever.
From there, I lead the family through a psychoeducation process about how to:
- reconnect as a family,
- setup appropriate tech for cybersecurity, filtering, and monitoring,
- make a workable and comprehensive GKIS Living Agreement,
- implement sound parenting strategies for maintenance, and
- slowly re-introduce screen media privileges while isolating and containing risk factors, monitoring and filtering as appropriate for the child’s age and the family’s beliefs.
You’d think the teens would despise me for suggesting this lockdown of their screen media, right? To the contrary, I am frequently shocked and impressed with the teenagers’ abilities to accept reasonable limits and embrace a more honest, up-front screen media plan. No more fearing parental spying and ambush, no more guessing at rules, and no more disappointing the people they love the most. Teens typically love the cooperative negotiation process and the opportunity to use their screen media without constant threats and withdrawal of privileges. I am not exaggerating when I say it delights me to see families transform from utter estrangement and desperation to cooperation, kindness, and compassion.
Just as parents must recognize that teens need their privacy, teens must recognize that screen media is not the appropriate medium for private content. There are countless interception and reproduction points in screen media communication. The illusion of screen media privacy is a trap.
Teens have to learn (hopefully the easy way) that it’s a trap, because one is lured into thinking that the conversations they are having will stay private. It’s a trap because it’s so easy to carry your friend with you 24/7, constantly sharing every activity, feeling, and venti frappuccino. It’s a trap because constant contact leads to dependent, intimate friendships. It’s a trap because, once shared, you lose control over that content, not only in regard to who sees it but also how it may be shared. A text, post, or image now becomes a physical entity that represents who you are – the good, the bad, and the ugly; an entity that can be edited and reshared with unknown numbers of people without consent.
If you’re a parent or know one, please avoid family crisis by taking an hour and sketching out a screen media living agreement for your family. GetKidsInternetSafe is here to help. And heads up, I’ve seen these screen media traps snare even young children and their parents. Don’t wait.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty