There’s no reasonable expectation that parents will monitor all online activities of their children. (Adults have a hard enough time monitoring, and limiting, their own online activities.) At the same time, untethered freedom of online activities can easily expose children to online bullying, elicit material and even sites that promote self-injury and suicide as reasonable solutions to emotional distress. It appears that general online use alone can have negative effects on emotional well-being.
In this Shots Health News post from NPR, they briefly look at research that indicates online activity may contribute to self-injury and suicide risks. In their research published recently, The Power of the Web: A Systematic Review of Studies of the Influence of the Internet on Self-Harm and Suicide in Young People, researchers noted the internet “is most commonly used for constructive reasons such as seeking support and coping strategies, but may exert a negative influence, normalising self-harm and potentially discouraging disclosure or professional help-seeking.” Further, their results indicate “both cyber-bullying and general internet use have been found to correlate with increased risk of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and depression. Correlations have also been found between internet exposure and violent methods of self-harm.”
If our children are seeking solutions to their emotional distress online, it’s a good indicator that it’s time to step up our involvement. If your children aren’t coming to you for emotional support anymore, maybe they aren’t even acting out in front of you but keeping it all in, it’s time to investigate. And by investigate, I don’t mean snoop (I’m a proponent of appropriate privacy) – I mean open a dialogue about your concerns for them. “Sweetheart, I’ve noticed I’m feeling disconnected from you recently and I’ve seen you looking sad, spending more time on your computer alone. I’m concerned and I want to support you however you need me to. I’m here for you and I love you.”
Talk with your children about their emotions: you’re a foreign language teacher giving them the vocabulary and the grammar of speaking Emotionese. You’re also a scientist, helping them test and understand the emotional landscape around them. And you’re an acting and dance instructor, showing them how to move their bodies and choose their behaviors to effectively demonstrate their emotions, to help them build character, impulse control, personal expression, practicing boundaries. One of the best ways to achieve these goals is by modeling and demonstrating, reviewing and repeating.
Online, this can be achieved with slightly different means. Partnering with a child early on as they learn about navigating the web, you can teach them how to communicate online, which strategies crossover to social media and which ones don’t. Let them know how you choose what you read/do online (modeling), how you choose what you steer clear of, how you use social media, even letting them know what makes you uncomfortable and what makes you feel vulnerable (judgment & impulse control). Then, you can help them start making these choices and judgments for themselves with your support and guidance.
They’ll be more likely to come to you when they feel uncomfortable or vulnerable online because they’ve seen you openly discuss your own experiences navigating those situations. When you make it a partnership, they’ll be invested in it and more likely to share their experiences, even the tough ones with you.