When kids make their first trip out to a store on their own, parents are clear about the benefits of the burgeoning independence and also the important guidelines: stop at the corner, wait for the light, don’t talk to strangers on the sidewalk, ask a store clerk for help.

Young teens need the same kind of parental guidance as they take their first independent steps out onto the Internet.

Just as they are naïve about how the world works, research by danah boyd says that most teens—contrary to popular belief—are also naïve about the Internet. Many youth don’t realize that Google searches can be biased or that advertisers blur the lines between ads, content, entertainment, and social media. To make matters more difficult, the brain undergoes a tremendous remodeling project in early adolescence, ages 12-15. Teens experience huge neurological and psychological changes to prepare for the coming independence of adulthood.

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This combination of technological change and normal adolescent development creates a huge challenge for today’s parents—there was no Instagram when the people raising today’s teens were in high school. Though there is no one-size-fits-all approach to guiding teens’ technology use, understanding these tectonic changes can help parents better guide their young teens in the wise use of technology. Here are five research-based tips.

1. Support teens’ social lives online and off

Teens are absorbed by their social lives—it’s one way nature nudges them out of the nest. As teens begin to individuate from their parents, peers become much more important. And these days, meeting friends often means hanging out on social media.

Far from being time-wasters, social media actually fill an important need. By tagging friends, commenting on posts, and uploading photos, teens extend the pleasure of offline relationships. According to danah boyd, social media is especially important, since over-scheduling, limited mobility, greater distances between friends, and fewer public spaces for teens have made hanging out in person more difficult.

Teens generally handle online relationships well, managing both their privacy and reputations effectively. Most know that sexting—the posting of nude or highly suggestive pictures online—is off-limits. And with its many resources and communities, the Internet can help teens develop their identities.

Still, changes in the brain in early adolescence make young teens uniquely sensitive to, and stressed by, their social world. Compared with adults and children, teens are more stressed while performing a task when they think they’re being watched. Among peers, they can make riskier decisions. They are more sensitive to exclusion, showing a greater drop in mood and a spike in anxiety than adults when feeling left out.

Not surprisingly, young teens are also emotionally sensitive, experiencing higher emotional highs and lower lows overall. Combine these traits with the visibility, scalability, and permanent trace of the Internet, and you have a potential perfect storm.

Parents can help guide teens’ online social experiences in a number of ways:

  • Discuss and model healthy relationship skills. Empathy, perspective-taking, and conversation skills learned offline will show up online.
  • Remind teens about the “performative” aspect of social media, which can explain why people often appear happier on Facebook than they really are.
  • Remind them that “friends” from different parts of their lives can all see the same messages on social media, a phenomenon boyd calls context collapse.
  • Acknowledge that teens are starting to deal with sexual feelings. Stay in conversation with them to help them express this side of themselves in healthy ways.
  • Encourage a variety of in-person, real-life relationships. How to negotiate with others face-to-face, interact with people of different power levels, and resolve conflict are among the many interpersonal skills necessary in adult life.
  • Invite your teens’ friends to gather at your house or drive your teen to their friends’ homes, so you can get to know teens’ friends and their parents. Your teens will feel supported and these networks will come in handy.
  • Talk with your teen about taking a “meta-moment” (see item three below) to prevent blunders. Teens will make unfortunate mistakes, but these days a thoughtless remark can be visible to hundreds of others and leave a permanent record.
  • Whether late at night, in the car, or while doing the dishes, be available when teens are ready to talk about their social lives.

2. Balance breadth and focus in intellectual development

From the pencil to the satellite dish, every technological advance shapes young minds. How does the Internet do so? Unfortunately, research on that question is in its early stages, and expert opinions vary.

Many highly regarded scientists are concerned. UCSF’s Adam Gazzaley believes that our brains didn’t evolve for nonstop interactivity, while Stanford’s Clifford Nass warns that multitasking has lingering cognitive costs. Some say heavy Internet use renders our thinking more superficial, less rigorous.

On the other hand, Harvard’s Steven Pinker argues that the Internet makes us smarter, and technology scholar Cathy Davidson believes multitasking might be creating rich new cognitive maps. The Internet may enhance creativity in music and graphic arts, in particular.

Parents may find it easier to navigate these controversies with information about how brains develop.

Real-time play and real-life interactions are needed for children to explore, discover cause-and-effect, and lay the foundations of social skills, moral development, self-regulation, agency, and creativity. For this reason, I am wary of heavy Internet use in early childhood. It’s better to expose children to a variety of activities.

By the early teen years, the brain begins to specialize. Unused neurons are pruned for more efficient processing, and the number of connections between them increases. Teen thought becomes more abstract and integrated and logical; creativity and competency increases. Whatever teens are doing—from vegging on the couch to building robots—can become more firmly established in their brains at this time.

So, for teens, I suggest supporting their focus on their emerging interests—including online interests—while still encouraging reflection, analysis, creativity, spaciousness, a quiet mind, and quickness. The more tools, the better.

3. Foster emotional and attentional self-awareness

Immaturity of the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain most responsible for self-regulation and decision-making—can make it hard for teens to regulate their emotions and make good decisions. Peer influence, which can also impact good decision-making, is particularly potent between the ages of 12 and 14.

But teens can be taught emotional skills, like how to take a “meta-moment” – a pause between being triggered and responding—to delay decision-making in order to choose a better path. This is especially important on social media where an impulsive act can have a wide reach. They can also learn to check in with themselves to become more aware of whether or not hanging out on social media makes them feel connected and happy, or sad and excluded. They can then choose either to maintain the feeling or do something to change it.

Today’s teens must also learn to focus and manage their attention. Technology expert Linda Stone points out that continuous partial attention, or paying a little bit of attention to a lot of stimuli, mimics an ongoing state of crisis—breathing becomes more shallow and the mind hyper-alert. In large doses this behavior can make people feel overwhelmed, overstimulated, and powerless. 

Teens are also learning to manage their time—an ability that takes a dip at ages 12-14. Helping them set goals and screen out distractions will help them control their own attention, complete tasks while preserving their energy, and stay in more conscious control of their focus.

4. Prioritize offline connections

Young people need secure human relationships to anchor and guide them from infancy through adulthood. These interactions provide validation, information, structure, safety, love, and warmth.

Yet both young people and adults say family members spend too much time online at the expense of in-person connections. Emotions expert Barbara Fredrickson believes that in-person relationships affect our physiology differently than online relationships do, increasing our health and ability to connect with others. Kids of all ages say they want parents to turn off devices and tune in to them.

Likewise, most teens say they prefer face-to-face interactions. Though teens are trying to become autonomous, they also want to maintain close connections and to talk with their parents about things that really matter. They have been telling researchers so for decades.

Set limits on teens’ technology use, emphasize real-life interaction—and practice what you preach. By checking your cell phone frequently, you may be role-modeling the very behavior you want teens to avoid.

5. Watch for trouble and intervene

How can you tell if your teen is struggling? By paying attention in real life and in cyberspace.

If you’re lucky, your teen will bring problems to you. Or you may notice your teen “cry out” on the Internet, or see changes in their eating, sleeping, or social behavior. Yale psychologist Robin Stern suggests responding to your teen with empathy or a hug while you check in with yourself to manage your own anxiety and beliefs. Then use gentle prompts to allow your teen to express concerns and explore problem-solving together. Stern recommends watching for a good time to talk and beginning gently: “I noticed that you looked sad when you got offline.” Conversation starters can be found here and here.

If you’re still wondering if your teen is doing okay, I also recommend assessing these four areas:

  • Is their sense of self intact? Do they have good self-esteem? Can they express themselves? Do they get needs met appropriately?
  • Are their relationships intact? Kids vary, but everyone should have at least one friend. Can they talk to adults? Do they have other good relationships?
  • Are they doing reasonably well cognitively for their age? Do they have interests or hobbies?
  • Is there an absence of pathology, like obvious anxiety or depression?

Beyond that, enjoy your teen and find ways to connect that make you both happy. That’s the glue in your relationship, and it will get you through the rough spots—both online and off.

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