Family & relationships

November 12 2017

Six questions to help teens stay safe in the digital age

Kirrilie Smout
By Clinical psychologist specialising in children and teens

Helping teens manage online technology safely and wisely is often a tough task for parents and carers.  But it can be navigated

Are you concerned about your child’s online activities? Psychologists recommend that parents focus on becoming informed about their life online, teach them technology management skills, maintain open communication and establish rules for online activity.

Why should parents spend time helping teens with online technology?

There are many benefits for young people in living in the digital age.  But there are also risks, including of conflict with others, access to inappropriate material, contact with people who pose a danger to them, and problems with technology interfering with sleep, homework, mood, self esteem and family time.

The Digital Me survey by the Australian Psychological Society has revealed that 15 per cent of teenagers report being contacted by strangers on Facebook daily, and a quarter experienced bullying online in the past year.

Teens are particularly at risk of some tech-associated problems compared to adults.  In comparison to adults, teens are more likely to prioritise peer relationships, be less able to identify risks and more likely to act impulsively.  Older teens will naturally desire privacy and independence. This can leave them vulnerable to the risks listed above.

How can I be informed about technology and my teen’s online activities?

It is important for parents and carers to know what their young people are doing online, who they are talking to and what material and sites they are accessing.

A good start with younger teens may be to simply sit down with them at the computer, phone or other device and ask then what sites they use and how.  Some parents have regular times of the week where they check in with their younger teens about their technology use.  It can also be useful for parents to talk with other parents and get information about commonly used apps and sites.

Regular monitoring helps parent or carers know what concepts teens understand, what skills they have and what additional coaching they need, as they learn to be independent digital citizens as an adult.

What skills do teens need?

As well as staying informed, parents also need to explicitly teach skills and provide information.  For example, in order to be good online citizens, teens need to know:

  • What they might say or do online which might distress, offend or upset others – and strategies to avoid doing this.
  • What and what not to do when they feel angry, upset or worried about something they’ve seen or been involved in online.
  • The risks of communicating with people they don’t know online – and what and what not to do when they get contacted.
  • Strategies to resist using devices late at night or just before bed.
  • What kind of online content they should avoid (eg, violent, pornographic sites), why and how to avoid this content.
  • The “business” of online communities and the various scams to avoid.
  • Strategies to turn away from or turn off screens when they are doing schoolwork.
  • When it is important to pay attention to real world interactions and how to resist their devices in order to do this.
  • How to communicate constructively to parents, carers, teachers and other adults about their online use.
  • What kind of content would negatively impact their reputation and their life if they posted it – and strategies to avoid doing this.

What should parents and carers ask themselves?

  • How skilled are your teens in each of these areas?
  • How skilled am I in each of these areas?
  • What problems might my teen might experience without these skills?
  • How can I help them learn these skills?
  • Where can I go for more help if needed?

What questions should parents ask their teens?

Once parents are aware of the skills their teens need help in, they can start thinking about how they coach them to develop these skills.  Communication helps teens develop skills and helps parents know about the kind of guidelines which might be important for their teenager.  Parents and carers could ask their teens questions such as: 

  • What can I do to support or help you be a good digital citizen?
  • What don’t I really understand about your social networking or online communication with others online?
  • What don’t I really understand about your gaming?
  • What can you tell me which might make me feel more reassured about my concern about X?
  • How would you look after yourself or act in safe ways if X problem occurred?
  • Can we agree on a family contract to ensure that technology is being used safely?

What are potential ground rules for online activity?

Young people with developing brains need rules and guidelines in order to use technology safely and wisely.  Different young people, from varying family backgrounds and different ages will need different type and number of rules.  Potential areas for rules for young people’s online activities used by different families include:

  • What sites are accessed or games are played.
  • What teens can say and what topics of conversation are okay or not okay in public posts online.
  • What teens can or cannot say in private messaging online.
  • Who they can talk to and in what context.
  • What privacy settings should be adhered to in apps or online.
  • When devices cannot be used, such as at bedtimes or designated family times.
  • What other activities have to be completed before devices are used, such as school or extracurricular commitments.
  • Who pays for what and when?
  • What access do parents or carers have to devices.

The Australian Psychological Society has tips to help adults and teens thrive online. Learn more about Psychology Week at

For more about e-safety, visit Reachout, the Raising Children Network or the Office of the Children’s E-safety Commissioner.