1. My 13-year-old wants a Facebook account. But I don't think he's old enough.
He's probably not. You're supposed to be at least 13 to join, but even then your child may not be ready. The reason? Kids' brains haven't caught up to the responsibilities of using technology. "A teenager's brain is not nearly fully developed, especially the frontal lobes, which control our ability to use good judgment," says Roni Cohen-Sandler, PhD, a psychologist in Weston, Connecticut, and author of Trust Me, Mom—Everyone Else Is Going!
So once they're on Facebook, they're likely to do and say things they shouldn't. One common mistake: over-friending. "Kids often accept every friend request they get, whether they know the person or not," says Shawn Marie Edgington, author of The Parent's Guide to Texting, Facebook and Social Media. "The more friends they have, the more accepted and popular they feel. A kid with 500 'friends' is more common than you think." But big numbers like that should be a red flag to parents. "It means your child isn't being discriminating enough," says Edgington. "Now all those people are in his network, privy to the information, videos and photos he posts."
What can you do to protect him, short of saying, "No Facebook, ever!"? First, determine how responsible he is, says Deborah Ramirez, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Blue Point, New York. Ask yourself: Is he good about handing in his homework on time? When he says he's going to do something—call his grandmother or feed the dog—does he do it? "How you answer these types of questions tells you whether he can be trusted to follow your rules," says Dr. Ramirez.
If you do think your child is mature enough to join Facebook, be prepared to become a member, too (if you're not one already). "Sign up kids ages 13 and 14 yourself, and keep the password so they can't access the account without you," advises Kathryn Rose, a social media expert and author of The Parent's Guide to Facebook. "And talk to your child about staying safe and being responsible by not sharing any identifying information, ignoring friend requests from people he doesn't know, and not posting inappropriate or hurtful comments," says Dr. Ramirez.
Another requirement: Your child must friend you. That way you can check on postings and conversations, says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, who also advises setting time limits. "Being constantly connected on social media lessens real social interaction with actual friends," he explains. One to two hours a day is more than enough, adds Neil Bernstein, PhD, a teen psychologist in Washington, DC, and author of How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can't.
Also talk to your kids about the type of photos they're allowed to upload. "Many younger teens, especially girls, think it's fun to post photos of themselves wearing belly shirts or other provocative clothing without really understanding the sexual message it sends," explains Dr. Arnett. That's yet another reason to friend your kid, so you can see what images he or she is uploading. Be proactive too: Set up a for your child's name, suggests Edgington. "You'll get an email immediately if a video, tweet or public Facebook comment tagged with your child's name has been posted online."
2. My 14-year-old daughter wants to start dating. Is that too young?
First, ask your daughter to define dating. Is she talking about getting together one-on-one with the boy she likes or hanging out with him in a group of friends? If she's thinking of a date where it's just the two of them, then the easy answer is: She's too young. "At 14, kids aren't socially mature enough to handle a one-on-one relationship," says Jill Murray, PsyD, a psychotherapist in Laguna Niguel, California, and a leading expert on teen relationships. Simply put, young teens are still impulsive and often act without thinking, she explains. So if your daughter goes out with a boy who becomes sexually aggressive, she may not know how to tell him to stop. And at this age, it's usually the boys doing the pushing, though many girls are becoming more sexually aggressive too, adds Dr. Murray.
What's more, when young teens spend a lot of time alone together, it can create an artificial closeness that may lead to early sexual involvement, she says. "Explain to your daughter why you feel she's too young to date. However, if you're comfortable with the boy she likes, tell her it's OK to invite him over to hang out in a public part of the house—not her bedroom—when you or your husband are home," says Dr. Murray.
An even better alternative: going out as a group. "It allows her to learn what she is and isn't comfortable with when it comes to boys, in a safe, supportive setting," says Dr. Murray. Before you let her head off to the mall or movies with her crew, however, think about how well you trust her. After all, she and the boy she likes could easily sneak off for some alone time. And let's face it, when hormones take over, kids' promises to you ("We're just going to the mall, Mom") go out the window. "As trustworthy as she may be, you can't count on her to act sensibly in the moment," says Dr. Cohen-Sandler. So confront it head on. "Say to your daughter, 'OK, you say you're not going to go anywhere alone with this boy, but what if you do?'" says Dr. Cohen-Sandler. "Talk about what might happen and what she can do to stay safe." You'll help her understand what can go wrong if she sneaks off with him, but also arm her with ways to get out of a tricky situation if she does.
Being realistic about what your daughter might do doesn't mean you still shouldn't test her trustworthiness. Start by asking her to call or text you at a certain time while she's at a friend's house, then gradually add more responsibility. If she consistently follows through, chances are she's ready for group dating, says Dr. Murray.
And though it will be up to you to determine when she's ready for one-on-one dating, experts like Dr. Cohen-Sandler believe 16 is often an appropriate age. "However, the boy she dates should be the same age as she is, or within a year or two of it," she adds. Consider your daughter's social skills as well before giving the go-ahead: Is she self-confident, independent and comfortable speaking up for herself? "If she's shy or needs to please, then even at 16 she may not be ready to be alone with a boy—no matter his age," says Dr. Cohen-Sandler. Photo: Shutterstock
3. My son posted a video of himself on YouTube. Should I worry?
As with Facebook, YouTube's minimum age requirement for uploading videos is 13. As long as your child is at least that old and is posting a clip that's creative or demonstrates a budding interest, like singing or moviemaking, there's no need to fret, says Alan Tepp, PhD, a child and adolescent psychologist in Mt. Kisco, New York. "YouTube can be a remarkable venue for creativity." It's your kid's way of showing the world that he's the next Spielberg—or Justin Bieber!
Take Shane Clift, 15, of San Diego, California, who regularly uploads Twilight-inspired skits on YouTube. "Posting videos has taught him editing and artistic skills," says his mom, Natalie Wilson. Another bonus: Shane and his friends often spend hours developing their skits, which is a welcome change from time spent glued to the TV or video games.
Still, even if your child's videos are strictly creative and not dangerous (like footage of your son leaping off the garage onto a trampoline or your daughter dancing provocatively), you want to set clear guidelines. "Shane's content must be age-appropriate and it can't be mean-spirited," says Natalie.
Safety is also a major issue—especially since YouTube has 3 billion video views each day. "A lot of things that are obvious to parents, like not posting your full name, home address or the school you attend, aren't so obvious to teens," says Abbi Tatton, a YouTube spokeswoman. Instruct your child not to publish any identifying information about himself and to be careful about what's visible in the background of outdoor videos (certain landmarks may make it easier for someone to track down his location).
If you're still concerned, sit down together and mark his videos private. This will prevent strangers from viewing his postings and allow only a select group of pre-approved people like friends and relatives to access his videos. He still gets to share his creativity—just with a more limited audience. Also visit YouTube's Safety Center by scrolling to the bottom of any YouTube page and clicking "Safety" to learn what you, as the parent, can control.
For example, it's possible—and simple—to block profanity, sexually suggestive material and even certain users from your child's account by switching the Safety Mode to "on."
4. I found a "sext" message on my teen's cell phone. What should I do?
First, erase from your mind images of an adult predator: In all likelihood, the sexually explicit message was sent by another teen he knows. A 2009 survey by Cox Communications in partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children found that 1 in 5 kids ages 13 to 18 have sent, received or forwarded sext messages—sexually explicit texts or pictures of themselves or people they know. Most of the time it's a boy forwarding a photo of a girl or a girl flirting by sending a provocative photo of herself, explains Cindy Southworth, MSW, founder and director of Safety Net, a project at The National Network to End Domestic Violence that teaches people how to use technology to escape domestic and sexual violence.
If it's a forwarded photo of a girl you know, alert her parents. If your child sent the message, delete it and then talk to him or her as calmly as possible. "If you freak out or immediately confiscate the phone, you'll shut down the lines of communication between the two of you," says Southworth. Instead, encourage conversation by explaining what you saw and asking your child probing questions: "What does this message mean to you?" "How does it make you feel?" Listening and responding with a level head first, then imposing an appropriate consequence, like no cell phone for a few days, shows that you're open to discussing uncomfortable issues.
After Alison Bosen of Peoria, Arizona, found a half-naked photo from her 17-year-old son's girlfriend on his phone, she immediately deleted the image and sat him down for a heart-to-heart. "We talked about what goes out into cyberspace and the ramifications of messages getting into the wrong hands," says Alison. "I also explained the legal consequences of forwarding child pornography, which this technically was." She was quick, too, to disable picture messages so her son can't receive photos anymore, and set it up so that he only gets calls and texts from trusted sources. Check to see if your cell phone carrier offers a similar parental safety plan. "After the first infraction, limit photos to those sent from a select group of friends that you agree on," advises Southworth. "If it happens a second time, block all photos." Photo: Marko Metzinger Studio D
Jennifer Matlack is a freelance writer based in Bethel, Connecticut. Her work has appeared in Glamour, All You, Health and many other publications.