Teenagers rarely speak to their parents about their online experiences, according to recent research.
"There seems to be a disconnect between what types of situations teens experience every day and what types of experiences parents have online," says study author Pamela Wisniewski, a former postdoctoral scholar in information sciences and technology at Penn State.
"Teens tended to be more nonchalant and say that the incident made them embarrassed, while parents, even though they were reporting more low-risk events, emoted much stronger feelings, becoming angry and scared. For teens, some felt these types of experiences were just par for the course."
A few examples of these situations include cyber-bullying, sexual exchanges, and viewing inappropriate content online.
This disconnection may keep teens from talking about situations that may upset their parents.
"When you asked why teens didn't talk to their parents, a lot of times they mention risky situations, which they didn't think were a big deal, but they add that if they told their parents, they would just freak out and make things worse," says Wisniewski, now an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Central Florida.
She adds that while overreacting may curb communication, parents should avoid acting dismissive when a teen does come to them with an issue.
"When teens actually talked to their parents about what had happened, they often wanted help understanding or navigating the situation, but parents tended to misinterpret their intent, not realizing that their teens were trying to open lines of communication," says Wisniewski. "It seemed like a missed opportunity."
Bottom Line for Mentors
While this research is primarily aimed towards parents' relationships with their children, there are some important takeaways for mentors seeking to foster a supportive environment for potentially difficult conversations.
It may be that teenagers are (understandably) uncomfortable discussing certain topics or experiences with their parents and will turn to a trusted adult mentor as a source of support. Should this occur, it is important that you, as a mentor, remain calm and treat their questions seriously. Doing so acts as a signal of respect for the youth's experiences, encouraging them to speak candidly.
Further, teens have very different experiences online than do the majority of adults. They also process these experiences differently. Understanding their perspective can go a long way in not only connecting with your mentee, but also finding ways of showing them why certain online behaviors are troubling.
Ultimately, withholding immediate judgment when a teen has reached out to you with questions or to talk about their experiences can be a key sign to the youth that you want to hear them out and understand their feelings. This trusted space can serve as a stepping stone for many conversations down the line, building a closer, more lasting mentoring relationship.