Q: My 15-year-old son has taken it upon himself to secretly open up social media accounts, one of which is Snapchat. We found out about these sites because we do go through his ipod and computer from time to time. He knows that we have the passwords to all his online accounts for which we have given permission. While I don’t believe that he is doing anything objectionable on these sites that we have not reviewed, I do not like the behavior of his opening secret accounts. I worry about online safety issues, and lately he seems to feel that he knows everything and that we know nothing. What would be the best way for me to address my son and get these accounts closed?
~ Will Something Snap(chat)?
A: Dear Will,
You are doing the right thing by recognizing that you must parent your son in the digital domain, but this must be done with respect for and sensitivity to his growing independence. One of the primary developmental tasks of adolescence is individuation, establishing and experimenting with one’s identity, separate from parents and caregivers. Your son’s situation is similar to the adolescent who kept a diary or journal under lock and key, which in previous generations drove parents crazy as well. Keeping secret social media accounts can be viewed as part of your son’s individuation process, as he is trying out personas and behaviors on his peers and the world at large in a domain that is not observed or critiqued by his parents.
Remember, the goal of approaching your son about these accounts is to keep the lines of communication open, remain a parenting presence in his online as well as offline life, and to use your executive brain functions to help him safely and healthfully navigate the digital domain. Speak with him calmly and respectfully, and explain your main points:
- Acknowledge that the “secret” accounts exist.
Be up front about the fact that you are aware of your son’s social media accounts, including Snapchat, and that you understand that what motivated his setting them up without asking permission is his natural drive toward independence. Being understanding rather than judgmental or punitive can help you build mutual trust and open communication with your son.
- Assure him that your intent is not to pry but to help him master his social interactions. No 15 year old has a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions like impulse control, future thinking, and understanding consequences. You can model and share these skills with your son as you help him understand that what he posts, forwards, and responds to online can have unintended consequences, such as hurting others, and will affect how he is seen by his peers. Let him know that your goal is his happiness and freedom, but that happiness and freedom are tied to taking responsibility for one’s actions. Assure him that you don’t intend to intrude unless his actions are dangerous or illegal, but that your ability to be there for him depends on your awareness of where he is and what he is doing there.
While this conversation may initially anger your son, who may feel as though you are infringing on his privacy, don’t be afraid of his anger or back down from the points that need to be addressed. Throughout this conversation, remember that although he didn’t ask permission to join these social media sites, he joined them in a space where he knew you could become aware of them. While he may not say so, he may even want your back-up and reassurance that he is okay. Research shows that many children feel closer to their parents when everything is out in the open and when they are given clear parameters of behavior as a member of the family. That doesn’t mean he won’t break the rules, but it does mean that he is being respected enough to be treated as the adult he would like to be, with individual responsibilities for his and others’ well-being.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,