TORONTO — Parents who try to secretly monitor their kids’ online activities are wasting their time and should use an approach that builds trust and allows for conversation, says a psychologist who has studied texting, social networking and other online pursuits.
The impact of social networking — the good and the bad — was the subject of a presentation Saturday by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, at a convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington.
In a telephone interview beforehand, Rosen explained how parents can open up the lines of communication so they’ll have a better idea of what their kids are up to in cyberspace.
Using a computer program to surreptitiously check on them won’t work on children who have been raised with technology, he said.
“If you try to monitor what they do online electronically, say by putting on some sort of a filter or some sort of electronic device that’s going to monitor every keystroke they make or anything, a) they will figure it out, and b) they will find a workaround in five minutes or less,” he said.
“I’ve had kids prove to me they can do that.”
And if they can’t work around it, youngsters will go to a friend’s house or use somebody else’s computer or a smartphone.
He calls for a weekly family meeting of 15 minutes maximum, in which everyone sits on the floor — so everyone is on the same level — and a parent asks non-judgemental questions, such as, “Have you found any interesting websites?” or “Played any good games?”
“And then you shut up and listen. Literally. And my rule of thumb is that for every minute a parent talks, you let the kids talk five minutes,” he said.
“Your job then is to learn and to assess, and to now use your parent radar to see if there might be any problems.”
Parents can go on to visit particular websites and ask specific questions at the next session. It’s also a time when parents can raise the topic of cyberbullying, and ask if their children know of anyone faced with the problem.
“There are going to be problems online. They are going to get things said to them that hurt their feelings, they are going to see disturbing images. That’s a reality. When they do, you want them to come to you, not go elsewhere.”
Rosen also recommends that technology be put away during family dinners: no phones, laptops, television or radio.
“However, we understand that all of us are hooked on technology, and so we’re going to have our dinner for 15 minutes, and after 15 minutes, we’re going to yell ’tech break,”’ he said.
Everyone gets one or two minutes to check their phones or social networking site, but if they’re late coming back, they lose the next “tech break,” he said.
“The kids at the dinner table are going to be much more willing to talk because they know they don’t have to keep worrying about who said what on Twitter, and who posted what on Facebook, and what text they missed,” he said.
Some teachers have tried this approach too and find that students are more focused and engaged because they’re not worrying about texts they might be missing, knowing they’ll have the chance to check soon, he indicated.
As for the positive influences linked to social media, Rosen said they are a vehicle for kids and even older adults to “practise life.”
“If you are a shy person you can practise being more outgoing. If you are lonely you can practise connecting with people. If you are somebody who needs support, you could practise by asking for support and it’s all done in the safety behind a screen.”
In addition, the online world helps children understand what they can and can’t say if they want a positive response, before they do it face to face with somebody at school, Rosen said.
Kids are also learning how to be empathetic online.
“We find that those who are more empathetic are precisely the ones who spend more time on Facebook, and also send more instant message conversations — so more communicating back and forth.”
If someone tells Facebook friends that he or she is having a bad day, it will often elicit sympathetic responses. But there can be a down side, too.
Excessive use of various media — television, computer, music — was associated with more physical and emotional ailments in children in one study conducted by Rosen a few years ago.
“When you moved up to preteens, those who used more media were more sick, but also specifically those who played more video games were more sick,” he said. “And then if you moved up to teenagers, it was those who had more media, those who played more video games and those who were online more, were more sick.”
A second study, conducted more recently, assessed psychological sicknesses and disorders.
“If you tried to look at what best predicted any specific psychological disorder, Facebook overuse was either the first or the second predictor for 10 of them,” he said, noting that the disorders included narcissism, antisocial behaviour, mania, paranoia and anxiety.
Narcissism is blatantly obvious on social networks, he said.
“The person uses ’I’ and ’me’ way more than ’we’ and ’you,”’ he said. “Their profile pictures are more posed and only them, as opposed to other people whose pictures are having fun, doing friend activities, cartoon characters, or whatever.”
A chapter of his upcoming book will deal with this, and suggests that parents teach their teens to write something, but wait five minutes before posting it online — and consider whether “I” is being used too often, and whether the comments could be seen as aggressive or harmful to someone.
“If you let it sit for five minutes and go back and ask those questions, you’ll probably change them.”