Should I be worried my teen is making friends online?

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Gone are the days where speaking to your friends after school meant calling their home phone and crossing your fingers that their parents didn't pick up. Today’s teens are constantly connected, which can cause even the most tech and social media-savvy parents to worry.

While there are valid concerns when it comes to teen online friendships, there are plenty of benefits too. Learn why your teen values making connections online, and get some tips on how to keep them safe.

The benefits of teens making friends online

It can be easier to make friends

For teenagers who struggle to make friends in real life, connecting online can give them the security they need to be confident and outgoing with new people. Kids who struggle with face-to-face conversations are able to take their time communicating, without anyone jumping in and interrupting them. In fact, 60 per cent of young people find it easier to be themselves online than when they’re with people face-to-face. And for teens with disability, the number is even higher at 70 per cent.

They can connect on common interests

Your teenager’s school friends are probably a motley crew cobbled together by playground politics. The online world opens up new opportunities for your teen to mix with people who have similar interests. Online games, or fan forums for books, movies or music give an instant connection for like-minded kids. These friends are likely to have more in common with them than the kids they sit with in class.

It’s easier to be honest

Studies have shown that young people often find it easier to communicate their insecurities or challenges via social media. The sense of anonymity provided by these forums allows teens to more readily express their feelings and be honest about their struggles. Their friends may also feel more able to offer support or advice via these channels. Encouraging safe, two-way communication can create an outlet for your teen to give and receive support during tough times.

They can find their ‘people’

If your teen has had trouble finding their ‘people’, online friends can provide the mateship and support lacking in their daily lives. Whether they’re from a culturally diverse background, identify as LGBTQIA+ or are from somewhere geographically isolated, there is an online community for literally everyone. There’s no better feeling than being included and the internet is a great place for teens to experience that.

It’s part of how friendships work now

Even if you’re sceptical of digital platforms and their role in your family’s lives, there's no denying that they can be a vital tool for connection. Your teen might not be beginning their friendships online, but they’re definitely using online platforms to solidify relationships made in the classroom.

Part of being a parent these days is preparing teens for the world we actually live in. Online platforms are a big part of our teen’s social lives now. As such, teaching your teen to be safe online isn’t too different from teaching them to be safe crossing the road or using a motor vehicle.

How to keep your teen safe online

Staying safe online should be a priority for everyone, but teens often need reminding of the basics.

Start by stressing the importance of keeping personal information private - things like their address, birthday, school name or phone number should never be given out to anyone they don’t know in the real world. These details can be used to target them in real life, or fraudulently use their identity.

Just as you’d prepare your kid for bullying in the school playground, it’s also important to warn them of the reality of online bullies and trolls. Encouraging your teenager to talk to you (or someone else they trust) about any negativity they may be experiencing online can go a long way to helping them manage cyberbullying.

Before your kids start interacting with others online, familiarise yourself with the platforms they want to use. This doesn’t necessarily mean jumping on Instagram and following them and their friends, but having a look at the privacy settings of each site can help.

Managing screen time with your teen

If your teen has lots of online friendships, chances are they may spend a lot of time on their phone or computer. Having an open and non-judgmental chat about managing their screen time can help you set boundaries and encourage healthy habits.

Discussing screen time versus active time is a great starting point - and there are easy ways to lead by example. Try suggesting that family time, whether it be an evening walk or a shared meal, is a phone free time for everyone (this means you too!). For more tips check out our piece on balancing active time and screen time here.

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