In February 1969, a young girl wrote the following letter to Ann Landers:

Dear Ann Landers:

I am a 14-year-old girl with average looks and a mother who is way above average when it comes to nosiness. Whenever a boy calls me on the phone, she has to know his name, his age, his religion, what his father does, where he lives, does he smoke, does he drink, does he swear, how long is his hair, how tight are his pants? Honestly, Ann, I could flip my gourd. Guys call just to talk, not to ask me to get married. Do I owe my mother all these facts?

Sarita Yardi

Sarita Yardi is an assistant professor in the School of Information whose research is in the area of social computing, social media and human-computer interaction. Her interests include how people use social media in their daily lives and especially how families — parents and youth — use technology in home and school contexts.

Ann Landers replied to the young teenager that she should appreciate her mother taking an interest in her life and that asking his name and age were reasonable questions (though the others were perhaps a bit excessive). For decades, Ann Landers’ columns were peppered with questions like these from parents asking if their teenagers were talking on the phone too much and from teenagers asking for more privacy and independence from their parents during their phone calls.

Almost 50 years later, the dynamics of parent-teenager relationships persist, but the landscape of technology has evolved dramatically. Teenagers are accessing technology at younger ages than ever before and are engaging with it more novel and pervasive ways than ever before. This introduces many new challenges for the digital family. In my work, parents often ask me for advice: When should their children be able to join Facebook? Are their children using the mobile phone too much? What is Instagram?

These are hard challenges to address. It is difficult for parents to keep up with social media and they have neither the time nor the inclination to surveil their children 24 hours a day. There is no single approach that works well for all parents and children. Some parents are more technically savvy than others. Some children are more socially developed than others. If a parent asks me when their child should be able to join Facebook, the answer is usually an unsatisfying: “it depends.” However, there are some strategies that most parents should keep in mind.

Focus on the behavior, not the platform
Youth move between sites quickly. For example, Instagram is a current favorite among youth. Instagram is a photo-sharing site where users can post photos, “like” other people’s photos and share them. Snapchat is also popular. This is a mobile service where users can take a photo, send it to someone else, and schedule it to delete within a few seconds. What is important to remember is that both are just services, and they share the same properties as many of their popular predecessors (such as MySpace, Facebook, and Chatroulette). There will always be new services that children move in and out of fluidly. Given the choice between trying to block children from a site and teaching them how to use it maturely, my hope is that parents do the latter. Especially as children are joining new services at increasingly young ages, how they use it becomes as important as what they use.

Try out the sites your children are using
Parents should sign up for sites their children are on to learn about the site: what is involved in registering for an account, what the privacy settings are like, and what kind of content is on the site. Much online behavior involves typical adolescent explorations of identity, friendships and self-expression. Parents who understand how a site works will be better prepared to distinguish what they deem acceptable behavior versus unacceptable behavior and will be better prepared to respond to teachable moments as their children experience them.

Develop technology plans for the whole family
Parents should develop digital plans or technology contracts for the whole family. In the same way that young children are taught healthy habits like brushing teeth, getting enough sleep and making good food choices, they need to be guided into their social media worlds. How to do this will vary depending on a family’s values, attitudes, and competencies, but all children need scaffolding and support. While it is likely that parent-child tensions will always exist, it is the parents’ responsibility to guide their children into in an ever-changing digital world.