Connecting with Tech-Savvy Teens


Mobile media use by adolescents has skyrocketed since 2005, with 66 percent now using cell phones, an increase from 39 percent according to a 2010 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.” Polled teens and tweens in grades 7-12 reported spending an average of 95 minutes a day sending or receiving text messages, and that doesn’t include time spent on social media websites.

With technology so ingrained in kids’ lives, it’s no wonder many parents have jumped on the bandwagon, adapting family communication to include teen-friendly tools such as texting and Facebook.

Before pulling out the cell phone or posting on a child’s Facebook wall, however, Robert Schrag, professor of communications at N.C. State University, says parents must first ask themselves, “What is the task I am asking this tool to do?” Only with a clear sense of purpose and understanding will these tools contribute to parents’ ultimate goal of maintaining family bonds through better communication.

Keeping in touch

As the Kaiser study shows, it’s not unusual to find cell phones in the hands of children as young as 8. Many parents say that’s by design.

A cell phone “functions as an electronic leash, allowing parents to give their children a little more freedom, and teaches a child to take care of something of moderate value and to be responsible enough to carry it with them wherever they go,” says Scott Keoseyan of Matthews, who with wife Kimberly is raising tech-savvy sons Sam, 17, Ben, 15, and Jack, 10.

Susie Murphy of Wilmington, mother of Seth, 15, and Hannah, 17, says they use cell phones and texting to coordinate schedules and check in. “Having real-time contact eases my mind, rather than waiting hours to see my children or worrying about where they are,” she says.

The trend has caught the attention of family and communication experts across the state.

Anne C. Fletcher, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at UNC-Greensboro, has studied technology’s use in family relationships. Her research suggests such viewpoints are common.

Fletcher found that early adolescents and their mothers “viewed cell phones as a source of connection to family and friends, facilitators of adolescent autonomy and development, and sources of social status,” she explains. Another study “reported that parents felt comfortable with adolescents’ use of cell phones because it provided immediate and direct access to them while they were out.”

Tina Ketchie Stearns of Winston-Salem says she regularly exchanges text messages with her 16-year-old son. “I use texts to stay in touch and also to convey support,” she says, noting that she recently sent him encouraging texts on his first day at a new job. “It’s quick and it works.”

Potential pitfalls of tech communication

In fact, texting seems to have become teens’ preferred method of communication, replacing phone calls and e-mail, particularly in managing day-to-day issues such as what time a teen needs to be picked up from an activity.

Karen Hogan of Apex has noticed this inclination in her 13-year-old daughter. “[She] would rather text me questions, such as can she stay later, can her friend come over,” Hogan says. However, she adds, “I [often] feel that there is not enough detail in a text and that we spend too much time going back and forth answering questions. I request a phone call in these situations.”

Hogan isn’t alone in feeling that text messaging may not be a panacea for managing a family’s day-to-day communication.

Melinda Harper, an assistant professor of psychology at Charlotte’s Queens University and a licensed family psychologist, shares these concerns. She notes that teens are not yet as skilled in communication as adults. “On the one hand, [electronic communication] can enhance relationships in that there is so much personal information available to share,” she says, “but at times it creates opportunities for confusion and miscommunication.”

Schrag, who specializes in media studies, goes even further. He warns that electronic communication can just as easily facilitate the breakdown of meaningful exchanges between family members who are constantly on the go.

“What concerns me,” he explains, “is that families [use technology to communicate] remotely, replacing the kitchen table as the primary place for conversations to take place. This pushes family together-time into a narrower and narrower space.”

Friends on Facebook

Ironically, in an effort to combat the disconnect created by busy lives and the shorthand of text messages, many families have embraced another form of technological communication: social media. While some parents require access to their children’s Facebook pages or other social media accounts, merely to ensure their kids are following rules for safety and propriety, many parents view an online connection as a way to nurture their real-world relationship as well.

“We use Facebook for fun, uploading family pictures or keeping in touch when we’re away from each other,” Murphy says. “Hannah and I play Scramble together.”

Kimberly Keoseyan posts supportive comments on her sons’ walls. “I also use it … to parent them in a very subtle and careful approach,” she says. Keoseyan required her sons to “friend” her and has since connected with many of their friends.

Parents who visit their children’s online profiles may use their social media activity to educate children about online safety – something all parents need to do, whether they join their kids online or not.

Scott Keoseyan, whose work in information technology gives him considerable insight into online threats, has used this opportunity to teach his sons how to surf safely, handle e-mails from unknown sources, be discriminating about whom they befriend on social media websites, and consider “what is appropriate to post and what is not,” he explains.

Avoiding “e-voidance”

Conversations such as these can help build trust and clarify values. However, not all teens will appreciate parents’ efforts to be involved in their online activities.

Ketchie Stearns remembers her son “was mortified once when I came across him having an online conversation with his friends and they were all using profanity. I broke in and said, ‘You guys need to clean up this conversation.'”

Murphy has had similar experiences. “Neither of my children are fond of my posting on their walls,” she acknowledges. “At one point Hannah deleted me from her account because she was embarrassed by something I posted.”

Clearly, then, the teen’s perception of the nature and degree of this kind of parental involvement is crucial to effective interaction.

“It is essential to consider boundaries, respect and balance in these communications,” says Harper, the psychologist. “If a child feels a parent is too intrusive in using [online communication], he or she may resent it and withdraw.”

In fact, while these media may be convenient tools, studies show it is the overall nature of the communication that dictates whether their use brings a family closer.

Fletcher, the family researcher, says that in relationships characterized by open, warm communication, technology such as cell phones “may function to support and extend such relationships and serve as symbols of security and connection.” In contrast, teens may view calls, texts and Facebook posts as intrusive if communication is generally marked by tension or hostility.

“Given the potential benefits to parents that these technologies bring about, they need to do everything they can to encourage adolescents to use them to maintain open lines of communication,” Fletcher advises. “The best way to do this is to make communicating with [one another] a positive experience.”

Indeed, Ketchie Stearns admits, a big factor in her decision to start texting her son, rather than calling him, was because he asked her to. “The good thing about texting is that he can be with his friends and they don’t know he’s talking to me,” she says. “So I get what I want and he’s not embarrassed.”

Keeping it real

As tech-friendly as they are, the Keoseyans say their philosophy boils down to one word: dialogue. “I use e-mail for reminders. We also use Instant Messaging and Facebook chat … [but] if we are going to have a conversation, it will be face-to-face,” Kimberly stresses. “We use technology to encourage dialogue, not replace it.”

Scott adds, “Anything worth saying to my children is worth saying to their faces, not posted somewhere for them – or anyone else – to see.”

Hogan agrees. “I am not as connected in [my teen’s] everyday life as I was when she was younger,” she says. “I still prefer talking to her on the phone or face to face.”

What matters in the end, parents and experts agree, is that parents and adolescents find ways of communicating that are mutually satisfying and effective.

“The technology itself has no ethical inclination,” Schrag concludes. It can help or hurt family closeness, create genuine intimacy or merely the illusion of it. Ultimately, he insists, parents and their children have to have a conversation about these tools and what they want to use them for.

Karen Lewis Taylor is an Apex-based writer and editor and mother to two daughters, 10 and 7.

Find more ways to communicate in Technology Tips Help You ‘Talk’ with Your Teen.

Families on Facebook

A recent survey about parenting and social networking by Nielsen for AOL revealed that while 76 percent of the parents with teens on Facebook said they had “friended” their children, almost 30 percent of the teens are ready to “un-friend” their parents. These teens are twice as likely to want to “un-friend” Mom versus Dad. Nielsen surveyed 1,024 parents and 500 children ages 13 to 17. Other results reported in August 2010 include:

* In 41 percent of households, children who use Facebook have to be friends with their parents.

* Nearly 50 percent of the teens said they would prefer to be friends with their parents privately on the Web without their parents having the ability to post comments.

* More than 50 percent of the teens admitted they do not personally know all of their Facebook friends.

* Approximately 40 percent of parents said they knew half or fewer of their children’s Facebook friends.

* More than 30 percent of the parents admitted they are worried they don’t see everything their children are doing on the Web.

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