Creating a dialogue with teens about their texting, social media and cell phone usage can be a challenge for most adults responsible for this age group. While most social media apps require users to be at least 13 years old, young people may be untruthful about their age in order to sign up for an account. The age that the average person gets their own cell phone in the U.S. is 10 years old, and 95% of teens report having access to a smartphone. Therefore, it is important for trusted adults to have open conversations with their teens about appropriate usage of smartphones and social media.
Whatever your role in the life of a teen, you know they are seeking more independence, responsibility, and privacy in their lives and phones and social media can play a big part in this. For LGBTQ+ youth, their cell phone can be a lifeline in many situations as they navigate understanding their sexuality, community building, health information, and general safety concerns. However, balancing that with their online safety is critical. The following suggestions are important for ALL teens, but for LGBTQ+ youth, who are at a higher safety and security risk, having these conversations is critical. Also included are suggestions on how to handle these sometimes-difficult conversations.
Rather than point out that a teen may not be mature or responsible enough to have a digital or social media account and demand its closure, try using some discussion starters like those suggested by Netsmartz.org. A few include:
You can also provide LGBTQ+ youth with a list of safe resources for reaching out to other teens and for professional support.
Knowing that the average LGBTQ+ youth spends 45 minutes MORE per day online than their heterosexual peers, it is important to know who teens are talking to, and understand if they’ve ever shared or been approached to share inappropriate texts, photos, or information. Discuss with your teen that part of being able to have privacy and responsibility is demonstrating knowledge about what is and isn’t okay online behavior.
Parents and guardians may be tempted to manage online security issues with their teens solely by monitoring or taking away phone/Internet privileges. Naturally, this is likely to create resistance on the part of youth. While these limits may be effective sometimes, they should be considered in conjunction with open communication and dialogue regarding online safety, or they could backfire. One workaround for parental control or parental limitations that teens have found is the use of easy to obtain inexpensive “burner” or “trap phones”. Taking the technology or digital experiences away is often not useful; parents can instead focus on ways to educate their teens about how to protect themselves online.
It’s important to talk to your teen about what should and should not be shared online, specifically as it relates to sexting. Teens can become entangled in inappropriate relationships with other teens but can also fall victim to predators seeking their personal images or information. Victimized teens will need support from caring adults in their lives and likely mental health professionals. “Talking to Teens about Sexting” has information about how to have these conversations with youth, and Netsmartz offers resources for families that can help.
Teens should remain aware of their privacy settings and what information is shared with online teammates or opponents while engaging in gaming activities. During the pandemic, there was an almost 100% increase in online enticement. This is when youth are approached through online platforms like gaming, social media and messaging apps. Youth may be “groomed” through role play, conversation, or relationship building, or could be encouraged to send explicit photos/images which can be used for blackmail or sale/trade. LGBTQ+ youth are further at risk because often they are seeking information or support from various resources when they may not be ready to share their sexual identity with those close to them. Resources such as Being an LGBTQ+ Ally by HRC.org can help those wanting to support LGBTQ+ youth in this position.
Whether your teen is being bullied or bullying someone else, what is shared online never really goes away. 48.7% of LGBTQ students experience cyberbullying in a given year. Even sharing or “liking” something that is meant to hurt someone online promotes bullying. Stopbullying.gov defines cyberbullying and provides information on how to report it. You can find ways to support your teen in these situations here.
Confirming and gaining new friends and followers on a teen’s social media page can be exciting. Accepting friend requests from a friend of a friend may be harmless and lead to new and positive relationships, but teens should use caution. Online video games are another source of online communication adults often don’t consider as needing monitoring, but should consider. Video games are a popular social outlet for many teens (when they aren’t on their phones), and more than half of youth say they have made a new online friend while playing. Online gaming has the potential to benefit LGBTQ+ youth through community building, finding new friends and representation but it is important to ensure that teens are staying safe while gaming as well.
It’s important to remind your teen to monitor the posts of new friends or followers. Accounts can be hacked and teens who are vigilant in protecting their accounts are helping to protect not only themselves, but also their true friends and followers. Encourage your teen to block and report – not just ignore – accounts of individuals who violate the policies and norms of the social media platform being used.
LGBTQ+ youth are especially vulnerable if left uneducated on how to help themselves in online situations. As a trusted adult in the life of an LGBTQ+ teen, addressing responsible digital use proactively is crucial. Don’t ignore these conversations out of discomfort with discussing LGBTQ+ issues related to online safety and privacy; instead, support your teen with education regarding how to manage this responsibility, especially because zero tolerance policy measures can backfire. Seek assistance through resources below for topics outside your comfort zone, and above all else, let the teens in your life know you care about them and their digital well-being.