Every parent wants their child to be happy, fulfilled and mentally healthy. But when you’re raising the first generation of ‘digital natives’ the challenge might seem daunting.

It would not be news to most people that today’s parents are dealing with unprecedented issues when it comes to raising their teenagers, having to navigate issues like cyberbullying, social media, screen time and mobile phone use, on top of the normal challenges of adolescence. The rapid changes in technology can make some parents feel cut off from their children’s digital lives and anxious about their online activity.

Our CEO Jono Nicholas – a father of three young boys – recently spoke on a panel organised by the Mental Health Commission of NSW about the challenges of raising teenagers in the digital age. He was joined by fellow digital experts and parents Mia Freedman, creator of digital news and lifestyle website Mamamia, and Samantha Yorke, head of public policy and government affairs at Google. Jono, Mia and Sam were joined by a crowd of parents, teachers and mental health professionals at Sydney Town Hall.

Here are some highlights from the conversation about raising teenagers in the digital age.

Focus on outcomes, not inputs. Many parents worry excessively about things like screen time or time spent on social media (input) rather than their child’s happiness or school performance (outcome). If your child is safe, happy and well then you probably have the inputs about right.

Balance. Does your child have a balanced life? Are they doing well at school, have friends, exercise and help out the family? If so, an extra hour on social media won’t do them any harm. We can help our kids distinguish between the productive use of technology and using it for escapism, but we need to be reasonable in an age where they need to use technology for all their school work.

The grandma rule. The easiest way to learn good digital skills is to teach them this rule: ‘If you wouldn’t be happy for grandma to see it, don’t put it online.’

How they behave is more important than what they say. Young people are better at communicating through their actions than their words. Acting out is often them saying that they are not well and looking for help. Look out for any unexpected behaviour in your teen, and use that as a cue to intervene.

Have a conversation with your teen if you see unexpected behaviour. Many parents think that it’s better if they leave a problem and it’ll just go away – it won’t. You can simply say, ‘I’ve noticed something’s changed – is everything OK.’ Even if they don’t want to talk about it then, they’ll appreciate that you’ve let them know you care. One of the best places to talk is in the car, as your teen will be more comfortable talking if they don’t have eye contact with you.

Technology is not the enemy. We tend to focus on the negatives, but there are many positives to technology and social media. There are incredible online parenting and mental health tools (like ReachOut.com/Parents) and for young people, technology can facilitate a sense of belonging and self-esteem as well as be a tool for learning. Jono used the example of a young person questioning their sexuality. A generation ago, this young person would have felt very alone. Now, a young person can go online and access a range of resources to help them, as well as connect with others.

Get amongst technology yourself. That way your teens will be more likely to come to you for help with a problem online if they know you are knowledgeable about it. You can even ask them to show you how. Research shows that young people are more likely to engage in healthy online behaviour if they see it being modelled by their parents.

Prepare to respond to mental health difficulties. Approximately 1 in 4 young people experience a mental health difficulty. Services like ReachOut Parents can assist in knowing what to look out for and how to respond.

Get to know the resources available to help you and your young person be safe online. The e-Safety Commissioner website is a good place to start. You can also get familiar with how to block, delete and report offensive or bullying social media posts.

For more information and support to help your teenager, check out ReachOut Parents.

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