How Much Digital Freedom to Give Teens

Digital Independence: How Much is Too Much?

Many parents routinely check their child’s online activities and keep track of digital screen time. They review the websites visited and social media profiles created. Parents also make it a point to read their teenagers’ texts. Parents today are caught in new waters. They find themselves in the uncomfortable position of wanting to keep their children safe while also preserving their growing need for privacy and independence.  

So what should parents of teenagers do?

Try a Real World Approach

The terrain is understandably challenging to navigate. Responding to both real and imagined threats, some adults turn to parental controls to block access to certain apps and websites. This may provide a dose of comfort to guardians but it can drive some adolescents to feel untrusted at the precise moment they’re craving more independence. And according to Caroline Knorr, Senior Parenting Editor at Common Sense Media, this approach is unlikely to work anyway.

“Teens are able to get on social media whether you’re watching or not and whether you’re allowing it or not,” Knorr explains. “Kids are digital natives. They can create another account you don’t know about and they can access other accounts from a friend’s phone.” She says a better solution is to approach virtual dangers the same way you’d approach risks in the real world -– be your child’s most reliable role model. Just as we teach our children to safely cross the street when they’re young or drive a car when they’re older, parents must also show their children how to be safe online.  

“The digital landscape is just another part of growing up,” Ms. Knorr reasons. This could mean, for example, showing them how to block certain users or take advantage of privacy settings so only their friends can see their posts. This protects them from potential predators while simultaneously respecting their increasing desire for privacy.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

It’s also important for parents to ask questions and not disengage. Similar to how parents may inquire about their day in school, they need to ask what apps their teens are using and invite conversations about them.

Dr. David Hill, Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, says when children are young, parents need to oversee their child’s digital presence. But for older teens, those who are between 16 and 18 years old, parents should begin stepping back, letting their children make mistakes.

“Parents need to take the digital training wheels off as their kids get older,” Dr. Hill says. “Like every skill, parents begin by providing guidance and hope their children learn.” He cautions that parents should increase their child’s independence gradually.

Most adolescents are capable of navigating their digital lives safely. Yalda Uhls, in her book, Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age, reveals a few important guidelines parents should keep in mind:

  • For most teens, the benefits of social media  — fitting in, social learning, self-esteem – outweigh the costs. Know your children and decide what works best for them.
  • Social media, used wisely, is not dangerous, and could help teens develop useful job and career skills.
  • Use the mistakes others make online as teachable moments.
  • Adults who want to help teens manage the digital world should consider their own media habits.
  • Be authoritative not authoritarian. This means setting rules and expecting them to be followed. It does not mean demanding your older child’s usernames and passwords. Ms. Knorr says being authoritarian can backfire. “It will only drive your teen’s behavior underground. A much better strategy is to be their mentor and coach,” she suggests.

An authoritarian parent sets rules saying “Why? Because I said so!” They come from a place of caring, but their kids feel controlled and often rebel by continuing, but hiding, the behavior. An authoritative or “balanced” parent actually has more authority because their teens appreciate their involvement. They are more likely to follow rules and boundaries that have been explained in terms letting young people know they are in place to keep them safe or on track for a positive future. As Ms. Knorr notes, they see their parents as coaches worth learning the game of life from.

One boundary a balanced parent should set is how much time is spent in the digital or virtual world. This isn’t about controlling them there. It is about ensuring they also have enough time in the real world to develop meaningful connections with real-live people. (Including you!)

Just as we teach our children to safely cross the street when they’re young or drive a car when they’re older, parents must also show their children how to be safe online.

Be a Guide

With roughly three-quarters of all teens having — or having access to — a smartphone, the struggle to find balance between overseeing and letting go is nearly universal. And while it may be a knee-jerk reaction to make this relatively new issue solely about how much you can trust your teen, it’s also about how much you can trust yourself.

Take comfort in the parenting you’ve done. Most teens internalize the lessons we teach and navigate their online worlds safely and without dangerous consequences. Most teens also happen to have very good heads on their shoulders.  

Like every other issue they navigate, your tweens and teens should know you always remain a guide for them. Being digital natives, they might have to orient you to the technical details of an online issue that arises, but you’ll still have the real-life wisdom to support them. The key is that they know that even when something goes wrong, you are there to support them to get through it.

For even more helpful resources on screen time and family, click here.  

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting

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