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A little bird told me your teen is on Twitter

While many parents are trying to keep up with Facebook’s ever-changing privacy policies, their kids are quietly taking their private conversations to Twitter. They are using multiple and anonymous accounts to communicate unobserved.

Teenagers are increasingly using Twitter because, according to my own teenage son, “Adults aren’t on it.” A survey conducted in July 2011 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which explores the impact of the internet on families and civic life, found that the number of 12- to 17-year olds on Twitter doubled from 2008 to 2010.

Escape from parental monitoring  isn’t the only thing driving teens to Twitter. When celebrities adopted the micro-blogging platform kids followed. One can only hope all of Justin Bieber’s 17 million+ followers are all teenagers. Eminem has 8 million (including my privacy-seeking son), Katy Perry 14 million, and Taylor Swift nearly 11 million. The same Pew survey found that most teens are happy using Twitter for benign purposes like following their favorite artists, exploring adolescent angst, and passing along immature humor. If only all kids could be as good as yours and mine.  

Kids can be mean, in real life and online
Electronic communication offers a distance that can embolden mean kids. “No one is safe from this new approach to bullying,” says Dawn Spragg, a Licensed Counselor  working with teens and their families in Bentonville, Arkansas, where three high school students were issued citations in Juvenile Court recently for publishing nasty tweets about classmates in a virtual "slam book" on Twitter. Spragg says that the anonymity of online aliases allows kids to bully without having to "back it up" like the bullies of decades past.

The Pew study found that 15 percent of teens have been the target of online bullying. This so-called cyber-bullying has become so prevalent that school districts nationwide are adding “electronic act” clauses to their anti-bullying policies to help them punish kids who bully others via phone or Internet. However, as pointed out in Twitter’s Parent and Teen Safety Tips, online harassment is usually rooted in "real world" relationships.

Parental controls and cyber policing is a waste of time and money
While it is important for parents to be concerned about what kids create and consume, it is crucial to nurture the real world character of our children through our relationships with them. Technology moves too quickly for parents to police. Even if they could monitor every tweet and text keystroke, parents should resist the urge. Spragg says we empower teens by helping them work toward “independent management of self.”

That’s missing the point. The real danger for kids in our always-online world is becoming addicted to the media itself to the detriment of real-time face-to-face communication. The Guardian UK spoke to researchers of a study soon to be released in the Journal of Psychological Science. They claim that due to the perceived low cost and high availability of media, resisting the urge to use it is harder than saying no to stronger drives like sex, alcohol, and tobacco. The instant feedback of social media is addictive and continuous. In the words of my son, “You can’t just end a conversation.”  

Instead of freaking out, let’s help our kids navigate this brave new virtual world, by working on our real world relationships. Let’s ditch the ever-evolving electronic controls and teach them to be kind, safe, and healthy—online and off.

When it comes to your teen’s online social life, are you all in or hands off? Tell us on Facebook.

Lela Davidson blogs about marriage, motherhood and keeping the evidence of aging at bay at After The Bubbly. She shares more humorous observations on family life in her book,"Blacklisted from the PTA."