One afternoon Mrs. Smith* noticed her daughter Amber’s* phone laying on the kitchen table and decided to look through her texts and social media accounts. Amber was only 14 and had her phone for about two years, but had never gotten into trouble so Mrs. Smith got out of the habit of checking. However, she was extremely upset by the contents on her daughter’s phone and confronted her right away. Amber flew into a rage; she refused to give her mom the phone, accused her of spying, and after they screamed at each other for a while, Amber locked herself in her room. Despondent and frustrated, Mrs. Smith called Outreach for help.
The family met with a counselor and it was clear that both mother and daughter were still extremely angry. The counselor’s first job was to coach them on voicing their feelings and concerns without yelling, blaming or accusing. Mrs. Smith went first. She explained that she was astonished to see vulgar and sexually explicit language used by Amber and her friends in their texts. Furthermore, Amber appeared to be using Facebook as a medium to gossip and say derogatory things about her peers. Mrs. Smith expressed feeling disappointed in her daughter’s behavior and worried that she was not embracing the values that the family held dear.
Amber viewed what her mother had done as a total invasion of privacy. She believed that her mother did not respect her or her right to have friends and relationships. She was offended that her mom now believed Amber to be a bully and accused her of having improper relationships with boys. The counselor had the family make a list of attributes and behaviors of the “real life Amber” and another set for the “online/phone Amber.” Mrs. Smith reflected that any time she has seen Amber interact with friends and peers she was sweet, friendly, and respectful. Although Amber is friends with several boys, she has never had a dating relationship. It came as no surprise when the list for the “online/phone Amber” was very different. The counselor helped the family process this discrepancy and explained that sometimes a disconnect can occur in which the teen talks or communicates in a way online that they never would in person. They may feel freer to engage in provocative or hurtful exchanges because the medium of communication makes it less personal. They do not have the benefit of social nervousness, or seeing how a peer reacts to negative comments, to temper their language. Amber believed her personality and values matched that of the “real life Amber” and she worked with her counselor on ways to more responsibly use social media and be true to herself online and in texts.
Amber still felt that her mother betrayed her and wasn’t allowing her to grow up. In order to reestablish trust, Mrs. Smith and Amber agreed that random checks of the phone and social media would still occur on a regular basis but that they would sit down together and look. If Mrs. Smith had any concerns, they would talk it out together. Mrs. Smith realized that a close relationship and communication with Amber would be the key to helping her be safe online.
*Mrs. Smith and Amber represent a typical Outreach client. Details do not correspond with any specific case in order to protect client anonymity.
Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer counseling and educational programs to youth and parents that are affordable, accessible, and discreet; all within a welcoming, supportive environment.