Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.Why won’t my parents let me use my phone? I swear I’ve never done anything wrong on it. I’ve never sent a nude or cyberbullied anyone. I seriously stay away from weird sites and I’m smart enough not to go into a chat with strangers. It’s as if my parents read about all the trouble teens can get into with phones and decide I will just fall into that mess. Every single time they hear about a kid getting into trouble they take away my phone. I’m not stupid, I know better. How do I get them to trust me?

15-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: I feel your anger. I’m going to ask you to do something difficult. Are you able to see life through your parents’ eyes, just for a moment? Can you develop empathy for their role?

Parenting is seldom easy. When our parents look at us as teens, they remember us as babies and toddlers. The responsibility to protect one’s children is strong. Your parents are afraid. Headlines make social media sound terrifying to parents. Your parents may worry you’ll meet a stranger on a chat and be hurt. They may be concerned you’ll be caught up in a sexting scandal or become involved in cyberbullying. Let’s talk about your ability to communicate your trustworthiness.

Trust is complicated. We build on trusting relationships over time. You don’t mention any incident where you violated your parents’ trust in you. You do sound trustworthy when using your phone; your guidelines about avoiding risky sites and situations are healthy ones. Are there any other ways you’ve ever violated their trust?

Most teens are not using their phones to cause harm. Many are obsessed with their phones – as are many adults – but the majority of the teens I know use their phones to communicate, to record their thoughts (much like a journal or diary) and to stay connected to groups of friends. Our peer educators and our Common Ground Teen Center teen staff communicate with one another and with me via their phones. Phones and social media aren’t dangerous if young people are educated in their use.

I suggest a conversation to clear the air. Share how much your phone is part of your culture. Promise you will avoid risky sites and be respectful online. Our peer educators teach a workshop for middle schoolers called Respect Online. They’ve created the following guidelines for social media use:

1. Respect: Ask yourself if your posting or text is respectful. If not, don’t send. Think before posting.

2. Drama: Avoid online drama. Face-to-face conversations show emotion and are less likely to be misunderstood than online postings.

3. Relationships: Healthy relationships involve consent. Don’t air relationship problems publicly, but deal with them one on one. Don’t break up over social media. Be respectful after a breakup. Be safe.

4. Control: No one should control you through your phone. If you take time to return a text, you shouldn’t be criticized. Healthy relationships are not controlling.

5. Privacy: Check your privacy settings. Send to friends only. Turn off location settings. Friends should know if you’re posting a picture including them.

6. Friends: Be cautious of friend requests. Accept people you know are safe.

7. Stay connected with adults: Tell a trusted adult if someone sends you provocative pictures or tries to meet with you offline.

Our next Peer Educator training is Saturday, Sept. 29, from 10 a.m. to noon at Common Ground Teen Center. Connect with me if you’re interested – any teen is welcome. If you are trained to teach younger students, your parents may realize your intentions are positive.

Peer Educator’s response: It can be very difficult to convince parents teens know enough to do the right thing. The best thing you can do is just sit down and talk with them. Keep cool and be as respectful as possible. If you are angry or disrespectful, it will only reinforce you as someone who can’t handle social media. It may be hard for your parents to contain their worry and understand you’re not like the teens they see in trouble. Keep trying. Show them our guidelines.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at podmj@healthyteens.com.

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