Techo-teens: An interview with youthologist Vanessa Van Petten

What Vanessa Van Petten, creator of RadicalParenting.com and author of Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I'm Grounded?, has to say about today's tech-savvy teens.
August 31, 2011

I just (virtually, of course) interviewed Vanessa Van Petten, creator of RadicalParenting.com, a parenting website written from the kids’ perspective, and a favorite speaker at Sandbox Summit. Her newest book, Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded? is coming out this week.

WS: How did you conclude that technology is such a hot button? It seems to me that most teens— and even their parents— are wired in at this point.

VVP: I asked the 120 teen interns who write at our website (ages 13-19) what are the top 5 things they fight about with their parents. Amazingly, most of those arguments were about technology. Fighting over cell phone bills, arguments over whether or not it was appropriate to listen to music while doing homework, debates about the safety of YouTube and Facebook were all on the top of the list. Technology is a huge issue for kids and parents today.

WS: In your book, Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded? you discuss how parents can help kids balance online and offline life. Is there a silver bullet?

VVP: No (lol)! It’s more about understanding each other’s perspective. And in reality, that means parents understanding what’s important to kids at this stage.

WS: Enlighten me.

VVP:  Media is social. Watching shows, going online and viewing YouTube videos are just as much about entertainment as talking about that entertainment is with friends. The ‘everybodys doing it’ social factor’ of media and technology is a powerful magnet. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fitting in is a natural part of teen development.

WS: What about safety? If parents embrace the idea that their kids will be surfing, how do they deal with security?

VVP: Kids are constantly being challenged with choices to keep themselves safe—even if they don’t tell you about it. For example, one kid wrote: “Today I got a spam message with porn. I didn’t open it because I saw right away it was spam, but it still made me uncomfortable. We get stuff like that every day or a mean text message. I don’t know if my mom knows how I deal with these every day. I am learning to stand up for myself online.” –Kerri, 14. Parents don’t realize how often their kids say no to something that they know might be inappropriate.

WS: So you just have to trust them?

VVP: Trust. And talk. If you catch a kid in a rare moment of clarity and honesty he or she might tell you that as much as he loves technology he sometimes feel trapped by it—always having to check in, be up to date on the latest shows and be online can be exhausting. I wrote a post about how parents can be a kid’s scapegoat and many of our kids referenced it when I asked them what they wish their parents knew about technology. All this involves is sitting down with your kids and telling them that if they ever need to get offline, unplug for the day or leave their phone at home they can always blame you. Sometimes the peer pressure to stay plugged in is tough, so if they know they can say, “Oh my mom made me turn it off last night,” it teaches them to slowly stand up for turning off their screens.

WS: Hmmm. Now I see where you got the title of the book.

VVP: Teenage years are a push-pull.

WS: So what’s your final word?

VVP: Technology is not a choice. Kids consistently told us that they have never known life without technology and digital media. Adults often have to be reminded that most of our kids were born the same year as YouTube, and email is now more popular than letters. For kids, using technology for as much as they can is a default—the choice is how they decide to use it.

Send me your comments at wendy@sandboxsummit.org, or check out Vanessa’s book yourself.

Kids and parents have always spoken different languages. Van Petten’s book helps bridge the gap with humor and humility.



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