Q:The Manti Te’o “catfish” story makes me wonder how I can best prepare my teens for future online friendships. My teens say that kids meet through friends-of-friends online and off, but online they just lie about personal information. I’ve always thought that practicing strong communication skills, honesty, integrity, and trust would help my kids grow up to be emotionally healthy adults, but can these traits fully develop if they don’t practice or value them online? How can I help my kids avoid catfish schemes without becoming bottom dwellers themselves?
-Swimming in murky waters, Chicago, IL
A: Dear Swimming,
To answer your questions about how your teens present themselves online—and how they can avoid catfish schemes—let’s first talk about what’s going on with them developmentally:
1) Adolescents are right in the middle of developing self-awareness and individual identities. Because they are figuring out who they are, they may experiment with different behaviors and personalities—both online and off. Sometimes it seems as if they change personalities as often as they change their clothes.
2) Because their identities are still fluid and forming, adolescents often present, in person or through social media, a mix of who they are and who they aspire to be. So a shy girl may post
a picture of herself in a bikini or a boy who doesn’t drink alcohol, but wants to be included in the party crowd, will post a story about getting drunk.
So your adolescents’ online portrayals of themselves do appear dishonest, but it is usually experimental and aspirational – who they think they are or want to be right now – rather than deceitful on their part. “Catfishing”, such as what occurred in Manti Te’o’s case, is more intentional, a deliberate effort to deceive. It may be the work of a shy or insecure person who feels inadequate trying to attract someone they like, so they create a fake online persona. This fictional character can be completely different than the actual person, and may even use someone elses’ photos, life story and gender (as in Manti Te’o’s case) in hopes of attracting attention. Other “catfishing” schemes are scams, that try to draw vulnerable people into “relationships” in order to get them to send them money.
It is important that your kids use social media to connect with people they already know, whether through school, the community or through trusted friends and family. They shouldn’t send money or locating information to people whom they do not know – and they shouldn’t arrange to meet those people in person, unless they are in a safe public place and are accompanied by friends or family.
Perhaps the most effective and developmentally optimal way to approach this is not solely as a social media or internet issue, but about how an honest portrayal of themselves can help your kids connect with others in real and substantial ways. Encourage them to think about how they would respond to discoveries that their friends or romantic interests were not who they represented themselves to be. Good relationships are built on honesty and trust. Social media is a great way to connect with people of like interests and a useful venue in which to explore how to communicate and build relationships. Done with foresight and care, it can provide a good foundation for lasting friendships.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,