adolescent identity

Holli Kaplan – Using Technology to Discover Your Child’s Identity

adolescent identity

Holli Kaplan is an expert in the fields of education and parenting affiliated with Famtivity, a up-and-coming social network targeted toward family engagement.  We had the fortunate chance to talk to her about some other ways we might bridge the gaps of conventional parenting and the new digital landscape.

Kaplan identified the core struggle of parenting adolescents as a “conflict between parents’ fears and their ability to see their teen accurately.”  This hasn’t changed in the last hundred years.  It’s always been part of teenage culture to pull away.

What has changed, however, is technology.

“With tech and texting there’s a whole world within that teen culture,” a world that, according to Kaplan confront parents with “a new level of fear and wondering.”   It’s a parallel world where our kids often have more control and understanding than we do, and this presents a unique challenge.

adolescent identity

The Challenge – Digital Culture and Adolescent Identity

Kaplan explained that this emerging digital culture is a source of “constant tension for parents who feel fearful no matter what age, they want to protect [their children] and make sure they are safe.”

We could list the reasons why teenagers are even more stressful but you’ve heard it all before.  Heck, most of you are probably living it right now.  If you’ve read up on the subject, you’ve probably come across an expert or two comparing teens’ smartphones and social media to journals, carrying with it the age-old stigma of the parent who snoops through their kids’ private thoughts.

Kaplan rejects this notion.  “A journal is a static thing,” she explained.  “It doesn’t’ communicate back to you.  It doesn’t open up other worlds, and forums, and people.”  In the digital sphere kids and teens are “bombarded every day with questions, comments, rumors, and gossip.”

It comes from everywhere, not just your close-knit circle of friends, but any of their friends, and anyone you may have friended on Facebook or Instagram.

“It’s a constant onslaught,” she argued.  “There’s a level of psychological torment that comes a teen’s way from engaging in texting and social media on their devices, and because of that I believe it’s useful for parents to monitor.”

Kaplan recalled one instance of monitoring her daughter’s search history when she found the query: “How to tell my parents I broke up with my boyfriend”.  After confirming with her daughter’s friend that she had, in fact, broken it off with her boyfriend, Kaplan was astonished, not just that her daughter kept it from her, “but just to know that she was struggling with telling us, so much that she did a google search.”

We’ve all probably encountered this sort of dilemma in some shape or form, but what does it mean for the parent-child dynamic?   Should we question their faith in this new digital religion?  It seems like there’s a new horror story in the news every other night; another tragic death stemming back to reckless online behavior.

Kaplan is among many parents looking for a way to bring order to this virtual wild west, saying that “as parents, we need to come up with an agreement about how to do this.”

The Game-Changer – Technology on Our Side

Holli Kaplan identified phone monitoring software like TeenSafe as “a useful tool, provided that parents use it responsibly.”  She clarified this responsibility as “a mindfulness of what is developmentally appropriate for adolescents and adolescent culture.”

Many experts, Kaplan included, advocate what’s been dubbed by many as the Family Smartphone Contract.  This is when parents and kids come together, just after purchasing a new phone, to decide the ground rules and boundaries.

Kaplan had an arrangement like this with her two daughters, in which she and her husband told them “[you] have a right to their privacy, to a certain point” while retaining the right to check  up on:

  • PC search history
  • Text history
  • Social media activity

They could do this with or without prior (or any) notification.  Additionally, anything deliberately hidden or deleted would violate the contract and their daughters would therefore lose their phone privileges.   It was required for the parents to know about all social media accounts and to follow (or friend) so they can monitor what they’re doing.  She recalled the time her younger daughter started having a boyfriend, and only finding out through Instagram.

“She decided to keep this private and I honor that,” Kaplan explained.  “But if there’s any red flag in behavior, any change, that’s a trigger for us to look at stuff.”  And sure enough, when she noticed her daughter acting strange, she was able to do some detective work and find out that she was having boy troubles.

“With Teensafe, a parent needs to be really mindful that information gleaned from the app is supportive to the teen in their developmental tasks,” she reiterated, because this virtual omniscience doesn’t come without consequence.

The Catch: Privacy and Trust

Some might argue that phone monitoring infringes upon a teenager’s right to privacy and betrays trust.  Again, Mrs. Kaplan disagrees.  “I don’t believe it’s a breach of trust to have this app and monitor your kids,” she explains. “Because as teens, their brains are still developing. They don’t always have good judgement.”

At the same time, from a developmental standpoint, Kaplan argued that teenagers “are supposed to push boundaries and engage in their culture.”  While some of this behavior may make us uncomfortable, she encouraged parents to recognize that   “Teens can use foul language in texts with their friends, and still be good kids.  They may have a boyfriends or girlfriends they didn’t tell the parent about, and that doesn’t make them a liar.  It means they’re learning to navigate the boundaries of privacy.”

How a teen perceives the use of monitoring software is often, as Kaplan states, “Dependent on how parents handle the information obtained from the app.”  She warns that “if parents use that info to judge, critique, or condemn, the teen will relate to that as breach of trust.”

That being said, “Until that teen is paying for their own smartphone and data plan, computer and internet service, then the liability of what content is on these devices rests upon the parents.”  Kaplan argued that “for that reason, monitoring is just as much for their teen’s protection as it is theirs.”

So how can monitoring be implemented in a way that doesn’t hurry our teens out the door?

The Compromise –  Monitoring to Learn, Not to Punish

Kaplan urges parents to keep a watchful eye, and a tight lip.  By acting as the silent observer, you maintain control without ever playing your hand.

“If a parent has an app and doesn’t let the kids know, that parent can stay grounded in what they’re learning about their teen,” Kaplan explained.  “If you see your teens are doing things that are unsafe, that’s when parents enforce a boundary, but unless there is a red flag like repeated porn, sexting, or bullying, then the data should only be used to learn more about where your teen is developmentally, socially, sexually and emotionally.”

Rather than confronting teens at the first sign of trouble, parents should focus on gathering data to better assess the situation.  Kaplan suggests using this “innocent data” to engage in “naive conversations” with their teen.  For an example of this method in practice, she shared an anecdote from her own life.

Holli occasionally Googles her daughter to see what comes up.  It’s not a bad idea for parents, all things considered.  Through this process, she became aware of her daughter’s account on a popular social media site Upon further research, she found it to be an infamous venue for bullying and indirectly responsible for several teen suicides.

“Her engagement on was innocent,” Kaplan explained.  “But at one point a couple of days later, I saw that somebody had asked a question, basically saying that my daughter is a [expletive].”

Her first maternal instinct, as most of ours would be, was to confront her daughter for breaking the terms of their contract, but her husband encouraged a different approach. “What if we keep it?” he suggested   “We don’t let her know that we got this peek into this part of her world, and monitor to see what she does.”

Kaplan did just that, and it paid off.  She casually brought up to her daughter one day in the car, without divulging what she already knew.   Instead, she asked what her daughter knew, and lo and behold, she came clean.  She admitted to having an account but stopped after being harassed.    “I checked and sure enough she had deleted her account,” Kaplan recalled.  “I consider that a parenting success story. That could’ve gone differently if I had gone with my fear and come across to her as restrictive.”

Sometimes, our kids deserve more credit than we initially want to give them, and letting them resolve problems on their own provides a more beneficial learning experience for both parties.

But Holli’s revelation touches on an important idea, one she addressed over and over throughout our conversation.  If phone monitoring is the means, then what is exactly the end?  How can this knowledge improve parenting in the long-term?

adolescent identity

The End Game – Post-Fear Parenting

More than anything, Kaplan stresses that parents should keep a level head when responding to what they find while monitoring.  By responding to a crisis through fear, you risk escalating tension and alienating your teens from their number one ally: You.

“Rather than operating from place of fear and scolding or being angry,” Kaplan recommends we all “opt to create dialogue… If we can behave in a good manner… we are modelling to our kids how to not operate from an overactive phase.”

Sometimes, that’s all they need, a reference of stability, a reassurance that maturity can overcome any crisis.  The last thing they need is an another panicked participant in their personal drama.

“Parents need to remember that teens will make mistakes,” she explained.  “It is a parent’s job to not make the mistake of reacting out of fear.”  Kaplan was enthusiastic in seeing monitoring as an “opportunity to learn more about our kids,” one that “doesn’t mean we have to give up our values.”

If we learned anything from our talk with Holli Kaplan, it was to just be calm, because if we don’t behave like mature adults, who will?


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