The other night a parent contacted me, upset because her son had allegedly said some mean things on Formspring.me about a girl at school. She was asking advice on how to handle the situation. If you haven’t heard of Formspring.me yet, you will soon. It’s a site where you sign up and offer to answer anything asked by anonymous questioners (invitations are being posted on Facebook, among other places). Sound frightening? That’s because you’re an adult and know the dangers of anything that can remain anonymous. To a teen this is a thrilling opportunity to have some fun.
But what do you do if you discover your teen has been saying mean things on the internet?
First of all, try to get some written proof. Anything that can be seen on a screen can be copied and pasted into a document and printed. Once you’re convinced the words came from your teen, confront him as if it were a done deal. One important piece of advice: don’t ask pointless questions! One of the biggest wastes of parental breath is the phrase “What were you thinking?” Like there’s even a good answer to that question! Also avoid, “Did you think I wouldn’t find out?” Obviously. “Did you think this was funny?” It doesn’t even matter now, does it? Skip the questions, get right to the consequences, as in:
“I’m really disappointed that you would do something like this. You know there will be consequences. Do you have any suggestions for what would be appropriate?” Depending on your relationship with your teen, you might get an answer like “Ground me?” From there you can negotiate an appropriate consequence, like No Screens for One Week or You’re Not Attending That Party This Weekend. If you don’t get a helpful suggestion, simply issue the (reasonable) consequence, much like Mr. Calm Police Officer would hand you your speeding ticket. No ranting, no yelling, no swearing – just hand out the consequence. Your teen knows he’s done wrong; you don’t have to make him admit it.
At this point, resist the urge to lecture. Save that for later, when you’ll have a less embarrassed and hostile teen on your hands. In the next day or so you can make some brief comments about the cowardice of those who hide in anonymity, and the importance of only saying online what you would say to someone in person. You can express again your disappointment that he stooped to such low behavior. But use as few words as possible; if you “go off” on your teen, pretty soon you’ll be the only one listening. Then you’ll have to deal with the issue of him not listening to you!
Parents often ask me, “But what about apologizing?” I do believe in apologies, but not when they’re forced (“Say you’re sorry! Say it right now!”). Though sincere, face-to-face apologies are best, written apologies are a good second. Just allow them to come from the heart, and not as a result of a parental demand.