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Setting Boundaries for Online Sharing

From sandwiches to secrets, heartbreak to heartburn, teens share everything online. But how far is too far, and where does a parent's role fit in?

Unless you have been hiding under a very large rock, you know the popularity explosion of social media among teens. This frenzy now spans across multiple generations with people tagging, pinning, posting, and tweeting about their lives.

Social media has made our world much smaller and better in many ways. You are literally a few clicks away from connecting with a school classmate, watching your friends' children or your own grandchildren grow up hundreds of miles away. You can share your Aunt Hazel's award-winning casserole recipe with complete strangers or let everyone know what you did last weekend.

Employers and even college admissions officials are now trolling through social media sites to get the backstory about potential candidates. However, the joys of social media can quickly become clouded with confusion over knowing the right amount of personal information to share. How do you know if you are guilty of sharing TMI (too much information)?

Shakespeare wrote that discretion is the better part of valor. It seems today that discretion has lost its application somewhere in antiquity. The popularity of social media, with more than 1 billion worldwide users, has created a virtual connectedness with very few boundaries. Parents are caught in a struggle between allowing their children to grow up and protecting them from danger that they do not even know exists. Discretion must be revived to develop healthy families with a proper view of themselves and others. Proverbs 2:11 reminds us that "discretion will watch over you, and understanding will guard you."

But what does the word discretion really mean? "Discretion" is simply defined as the quality of behaving or speaking in such a way as to avoid social embarrassment or distress. Have you ever embarrassed yourself in public? At least that slip of the tongue or clumsy fall happens and is usually soon forgotten. However, social media preserves your most embarrassing moments ad infinitum. That really cool picture you posted of your senior trip or that thing you did at the company party is now public domain for employers, future spouses, and your grandmother. Yes, she is online too!

So why do people feel inclined to post their most intimate details online? How can parents set appropriate boundaries for themselves as well as their children?

Avoid the Waxed Fruit

I have a vivid childhood memory of a large bowl of waxed fruit sitting on my grandmother's dining room table. That bowl had some of the most delicious looking apples, grapes, and bananas you could imagine. I knew that fruit was fake, but those shiny apples proved to be an insurmountable foe and finally convinced me to take a bite one day. The result was less than pleasant and still makes me cringe whenever I see waxed fruit today.

Most of the problems we encounter in life are when we allow God's best to become substituted with a counterfeit. Consider the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, & self-control (Gal. 5:22). These are pure characteristics of Jesus, but the world offers a distorted version. To love as Jesus loved means to sacrifice your own preferences for the good of another with no expectation of receiving anything in return.

Counterfeit love means to show affection to others for selfish reasons. In other words, your motivation to helpothers is to feel good about yourself. (For a complete discussion on this subject see Galatians: Living in Line with the Truth of the Gospel by Tim Keller).

Counterfeit self-worth is at the core of much of teen culture. Youth evangelist Jeffrey Dean observes that teens are pushing the boundaries of social media in a search for significance. He sums up a common teen perspective as "I'll try whatever with whomever if you will love me forever." Discretion becomes a small price to pay in order to gain enough popularity to make a teen feel loved. This attempt to find acceptance and self-worth has even carried over into the teen subculture.

Teens today are using the term YOLO ("You only live once") to justify adventurous and sometimes dangerous behavior-both on and offline. YOLO can apply to almost anything, including driving your car too fast, buying an expensive pair of shoes at the mall, or sending racy text messages. The idea is that you are only young once so do what you want, have fun, and do not worry about tomorrow. A counterfeit. Waxed fruit.

The Psalmist declares that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Our worth and value are determined by God (Gen. 1:26) and demonstrated by His love for us through Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:8). The purpose of life is not simply to have fun, but to know and love God. It is true that we all have but one life to live. As Christians, we are called to live life on purpose and make every effort to advance the cause of Christ. The really cool thing is that we are not asked to go it alone. God's supernatural power enables us to be His witness wherever we go (Acts 1:8). That includes the realm of social media.

How Then Shall We Parent?

It is easy to get overwhelmed with the challenge of navigating social media when it comes to your teen. But the answer is found in a much broader context than just the do's and don'ts of using social media. Here are a few thoughts that will hopefully help you in the journey.

It starts with you. Parents, there is no better teacher for your children than you. Are you modeling the kind of behavior that honors God in all areas of your life-including social media?

God's design is for you to love the Lord with all your heart and then be the primary disciple maker of your children (Deut. 6:5-7). It is never too late to get started, but it is always too late to wait. Start today! Ask God to help you be the mom or dad that He intends and that your children desperately need. Let the church help but remember that it starts with you.

Don't be creeping. A few years ago the term "helicopter parent" was coined to describe a parent that constantly hovers over their children. This type of parenting is sometimes in response to a past experience with absentee parents or just a desire to be involved, but the results are rarely positive.

Today, teens may use the word "creeping" to describe this type of parenting. If you want to undermine the relationship you have with your teen, then make sure you comment on every status, picture, and video that they post. Better yet, go ahead and post those embarrassing baby pictures and tell all your online friends about your teen's most awkward growing-up moments.

The purpose of parenting is not to embarrass your children but to train them in Christian living and release them as light-bearers into the world. The apostle Paul reminds us of our purpose when he writes, "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4).

Trust starts early. It has been said that trust is the highest form of leadership. The same can be of parenting. Do your children know that they can trust you? Trust begins early in a child's life and includes unconditional love expressed with appropriate boundaries.

The current generation is exposed to more destructive influences than any other in history, yet the trust factor remains true-maybe even more so-today. Teens need to know that they can trust their parents to set healthy boundaries around their lives. Parents are absolutely called to be protectors of their children, even with social media.

The pressure for teens to test boundaries is just as real as the temptation for parents to hover overhead. Social media is the new venue that makes sharing our lives with the world only a click away. This is an exciting new reality, but left unchecked it can pose many serious threats.

Parents need to remember their biblical role as protector and primary disciple-maker for their children. This includes learning all you can about social media and being active in your teen's life online as well as offline.

Here are a few markers to help raise Godly teens and get the best from social media:

  • Give unconditional love and support to your teen.
  • Help them understand that their worth comes from God (not their friends).
  • Always choose to be their parent first and friend second.
  • Protect them with healthy boundaries.
  • Be an example of a Christ-follower. Avoid, "Do as I say and not as I do."
  • Tell your daughters that you love them and they are beautiful.
  • Tell your sons often that you love them and are proud of them.
  • Discuss Internet safety and the consequences of "no discretion."
  • Brainstorm together ways to advance the cause of Christ through social media-without being obnoxious!
  • Lighten up. It's okay to have fun and be yourself online-but please use discretion!
  • Live by this rule: Never post anything online you wouldn't want your grandmother to see!

"Teach me good judgment and discernment, for I rely on your commands." Psalm 119:66

This article is courtesy of Parenting Teens.

Ryan Mason serves as Minister of Education at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas and loves to write about real life issues and help others apply biblical truths to daily living. He is married to Kilie and they are blessed with two amazing children.