Cover Story

Parents of the 10- to 17-year-old crowd are often bewildered by their scions' immersion in the virtual world.

"You might peek into your kid's room, and your kid is on MySpace and they're talking on the phone and they're texting and IMing and there's music coming from the iPod--basically, you're seeing kids who are so technologically adept that parents don't quite know what to do about it," says technology researcher Larry Rosen, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Parental concerns might boil down to something like this: Is their 14-year-old daughter doing research for her English paper, or flirting with someone 10 years older than she is? Or both?

To help parents navigate this ambiguous world, Rosen advises them to get online themselves and learn some basics so they can communicate with their children about cyberspace and parent them effectively. He outlines strategies for doing that in a forthcoming book, "Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

To start, parents should understand that for many young people "their online world is their social environment," Rosen says. That means NetGeners are doing all the kinds of things online that their parents did while hanging out at the mall or behind the school--including, yes, flirting, and trying out various identities, Rosen says.

Rosen tackles a number of such issues in his book, including sexual identity formation, family functioning and blogging, first from the young person's perspective--he's interviewed thousands of teens and preteens and then as advice to parents.

Some of his counsel?

  • Learn the technology. "Have your kid show you how MySpace works," Rosen says. "Have them show you what YouTube is. Have them work with you online a little bit. Have them feel good about their skills." This can go a long way toward helping the young person feel more at ease, and give the parent a better sense of which rules and limits might be important.
  • Place computers in a room the family frequents. "You don't want to create a 'techno-cocoon' where your teen disappears into his or her bedroom and doesn't participate in family activities," he says.
  • Plan family activities in advance and include your teen.
  • Limit your teens' online time. Set a rule stipulating that a given amount of time on the Internet be matched by other activities--for example, an hour online for two hours spent visiting with parents or friends, reading or playing outside.
  • Monitor their activities. "Parents need to be aware of exactly what media their teens are consuming and monitor them for anything that might create discomfort or cause potential problems," says Rosen. The easiest way to do this, he says, is to maintain a line of communication that is respectful, constructive and collegial, not punitive.