John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article created June 98, Revised Feb 2005
The newest street corners, arcades, and malls that serve as teen hangouts can be found right within the walls of the homestead. They are electronic mockups of the real thing - accessed easily by the family's online computer. For many adolescents these cyberspace hangouts are no less treasured or real than the "real" thing.
What draws adolescents to the world of the Internet? What are the benefits and dangers of their exploring this new realm that may very well become a cornerstone of the new millennium into which they will grow as adults?
What Makes Adolescents Tick
To answer these questions, let's first consider some of the underlying, interlocking needs and motives of the adolescent. None of this is new or earth-shattering information. Psychologists and parents have known these things for quite a long time. However, these basic and familiar principles can be very comforting tools for understanding why adolescents do what they do in this seemingly exotic and strange land called cyberspace:
Identity experimentation and exploration - Adolescents are grappling with who they are. Actually, we all are - it's a lifelong process - but for adolescents on the verge of leaving home and establishing their own life, it's a particularly intense issue. What kind of person am I? What do I want to do with my life? What kind of relationships do I want? These are heavy-duty questions... and some of the answers can be found in cyberspace.
Intimacy and belonging - During adolescence, humans experiment intensely with new intimate relationships, especially opposite sex relationships. They look for comrades and new groups where they can feel a sense of belonging. All these relationships become a big part of exploring one's own identity. On the Internet, there is an almost limitless array of people and groups to interact with - all kinds of people and groups with all kinds of personalities, backgrounds, values, and interests.
Separation from parents and family - The adolescents' search for their own identity, relationships, and groups goes hand-in-hand with their drive to separate from their parents. They want to be independent, to do their own thing. It's an exciting process, and cyberspace is an exciting place to fulfill those needs of a pioneering, adventurous spirit - especially when your parents know almost nothing about the Internet! On the other hand, adolescents also are a bit anxious about the separation/individuation process. After all, relying on Mom, Dad and the old homestead does have some advantages. The fascinating thing about the Internet - and perhaps one of the reasons why it is so enticing to some adolescents - is that it neatly takes care of this ambivalence. Want to meet new people, do exciting things, explore the world? Want to stay home too? You can do both, simultaneously, when you go online.
Venting frustrations - An old theory about adolescence proclaimed that it is a period of "storm and stress." That theory may be a bit melodramatic, but the teen years certainly can be a difficult and frustrating period of life. Expectations from school, family, and friends can feel overwhelming. What do you do with all those frustrations, including the sexual and aggressive ones? You need to vent it somewhere.... Welcome to the anonymous, easy to click-in-and-out world of cyberspace!
Where Adolescents Hang Out
In case some readers aren't familiar with the Internet, let me briefly explain some of the places where adolescents might frequent. I'll break the rather complex world of cyberspace into four basic categories:
Web sites - These are an endless variety of pages that adolescents can visit and read. It might be a short one-page description of a rock star, other teens' home pages in which they describe themselves, an article about the French revolution, or an entire online book. Web pages may also include pictures, video clips, sounds, and music. Web pages are a vast multimedia online library covering any topic you can imagine. They contain a cornucopia of ideas, insights, and visions for adolescents eager to discover their identity and a direction in life.
Games - There are also an seemingly endless variety of online games, which often are a favorite of many teens. Although the objective of most games is competition and winning, such environments often become a place for socializing. Of all the places online that adolescents go, games have the highest potential for attracting the teens attention, even to the point of obsession and addiction.
Email dyads and groups - Email is one of the most easy to use, flexible, and powerful means to communicate. It's more than just an electronic letter launched through the Internet. Email exchanges are more like an ongoing conversation. Subtle and complex relationships can form through frequent email interactions. The email itself becomes a psychological "space" in which the adolescents live together. Email within a couple can create a very intimate, emotional relationship. Groups of people also can communicate with each other through email "lists," also known as "listservs." For some people, the attractive feature of text-only communication, including email, is that you can't see or hear the other person. This may make the relationship feel somewhat ambiguous and anonymous, which tends to encourage people to say things that they wouldn't ordinary say - what psychologists call the "online disinhibition effect."
Chat rooms, Instant Messaging (IM), and MUDs - These also are a favorite for many teens. In chat rooms and instant messaging, adolescents communicate with each other in "real time." In other words, everyone is sitting at their computer at the same time, typing messages to each other that scroll down the screen. Everyone can see the messages as people "talk" to their friend or to a group of friends. It's also possible to send a private message to another person that the group can't see. In this category of "synchronous" communication, we may also include text messaging via cell phones., although teens also use this type of text communication for delayed, "asynchronous," conversations.
In the multimedia chat environments such as Palace and Second Life, the text conversations occur in a visual room and the participants use tiny visual icons called "avatars" to represent themselves. Some adolescents like to present themselves in an imaginative way, by changing their name, age, identity, or even their gender. Some chat environments (e.g., MUDs) become a very intricate fantasy world where adolescents create all sorts of imaginative roles and scenarios. It's like a living novel complete with characters and plots, or a very elaborate Halloween party with its own idiosyncratic rules and culture. As with email, not being able to see or hear the other person makes chat a rather ambiguous and anonymous mode of communication - especially because other people may not even know your real name, but just your username, which can be any imaginative name you choose.
Discussion Boards - Sometimes called by a variety of other names ("forums," "discussion groups," "newsgroups"), a message board is like an electronic bulletin board. People connect to a specific site on the Internet and post messages to each other. Unlike chat, this is not a real-time conversation. Whenever you want, you can go to the site and read the messages that others have written. Each group usually is devoted to a specific topic of discussion - like a rock band. Usenet, the original home of the newsgroup, contains tens of thousands of groups devoted to almost any topic you can imagine. Some of these groups are the homes-away-from-home for many teens. Some web sites also use this "bulletin board" format. Once again, as with email and chat, newsgroup posts can be a very anonymous style of communicating.
Blogs - Another "asynchronous" type of text communication, like email and IM, blogs are a kind of online journal or diary. Adolescents often use them to record what they are thinking and feeling about the events of their day. They can restrict access to their blog so only friends can read and post replies to their entries, but often their online journal is wide open for anyone to see - a fact they sometimes forget as they type out their inner thoughts and emotions. Teens may also use blogs like a message board, to carry on conversations with friends about topics of interest to them. Innovative teenagers might create a blog as the journal for an imaginary person they created, or for a make-believe band or organization. Often that blog is an inside joke for the teens and their friends.
Video-conferencing is another newer feature of cyberspace. Using a video camera and microphone, people can see and hear each other as they talk. However, the expense and variety of technical problems associated with high quality video-conferencing makes it a much less common form of communication for adolescents. Usually, only more hardcore computer techies are up to the challenge. My guess, too, is that it's not as much fun for the adolescent as the more anonymous and/or fantasy-based modes of hanging out in cyberspace.
Now that we are all familiar with the places where adolescents might hang out, let's focus on the pros and cons of what they are doing there. The important thing to remember about cyberspace is that its strengths are its weaknesses. Like many things in life, the bad comes with the good.
Know How: Acquiring New Skills
Whether we like it or not, computers are part of modern life. Learning about them is no longer the bailiwick of geeks with horn-rimmed glasses and pocket pen holders. All adolescents will need to feel comfortable with computers in order to survive in the new millennium. Are there any jobs anymore that don't require at least some knowledge of computers? The fact that cyberspace is so attractive to teens can be a blessing in disguise. The typical adolescent wants to explore and do more. They don't want to simply chat: they want to write scripts that automate their online activities, create their own web page, scan or take pictures with their digital cameras that they can share online. It makes them feel good about themselves. It's another notch in their belt that impresses their cronies and gets them status with the in-crowd. To climb that social ladder on the Internet, the teen needs to learn more and more about computers. Often it's no chore. They love the sense of mastery and accomplishment. They love to teach other kids, which reinforces their own knowledge and builds their self esteem.
The skill-building goes beyond the computer itself. Designing a good web page or blog, for example, requires skills in graphics, page layout, and writing. It's creative as well as technical. Even if an adolescent just wants to talk with friends in chat rooms, blogs, message boards, or email encounters, he or she still has to WRITE. They have to grapple with words, grammar, and creative new ways to express themselves. Some people think that the Internet has revived the art of writing. Text-talk is a fascinating, creative challenge and many adolescents eagerly attack it. Perhaps to the dismay of some English teachers, cyberspace may be motivating adolescents to write more so than any other event in history. On the other hand, some people - most likely those English teachers - may be horrified at the seemingly mutated spelling and grammar of email and especially IM. To the untrained eye, it may in fact be indecipherable. That's because the extremely abbreviated and slang-driven style of IM is a new language that makes conversing efficient, as well as enhances the teen's identity as a member of a unique group with a unique language.
In the Know: Finding Information
One way adolescents establish their own individual identity is by acquiring new facts and philosophies, which includes the skills that may develop from that information. One attractive feature of the Internet for teens is that there are no holds barred on the information out there. Many areas of cyberspace are minimally controlled by the government, school, parents, and adults in general. Other kids are publishing almost whatever they want on the web. Cyberspace is a new frontier of information just waiting to be pioneered. Exploring that information can satisfy that need to feel separate and unique from one's parents.
The Internet is a vast library covering any topic imaginable. In some respects, it's better than most libraries - at least it is from the perspective of the adolescent. How much information can you find at the public library about rock groups or your favorite TV stars? Some people might claim that much of the information on the web is junk. Of course, one person's garbage is another's jewel. Perhaps the positive aspect of this dilemma is that adolescents are placed in the position of deciding for themselves what is good information, and what isn't. Skeptics claim that they lack the ability to make these discriminations, and in some cases they may be right. But many adolescents will rise to the challenge. They - in fact all of us - will have to become savvy consumers of information in this new Information Age of ours. One thing is for sure: they have to learn how to search for the information they want. To use a web search engine, they have to learn about Boolean logic and the nuances of how to phrase a keyword. It makes them THINK about their topic before they even find the information.
Now for the bad news. Some of the information and skills that adolescents might seek is better left alone. Pornography, drugs, methods of inflicting violence. It's all there on the Internet. No parent wants their child to learn how to concoct a sex drug or build a bomb. But other scenarios may be more ambiguous. What if, for personal reasons, an adolescent wants information about abortion or being gay? Should they have access to it? Freedom of information, the quality control of information, and the values that influence our attitudes about information are all issues that everyone must confront.
Getting Worldly Wise
Students in the U.S. tend not to be experts on global issues. Many would be hard pressed to name just three Mediterranean countries. Cyberspace offers the opportunity for adolescents to meet others of their kind from around the world. Many chat rooms and newsgroups are international in composition. Cross-cultural discussions and debates are common. Hearing an online friend from another country talk about a local natural disaster can have a much bigger impact on you than watching it on the evening news. Hearing foreigners describe their perception of Americans can be a real eye-opener. If they hang out in these online communities long enough, it's inevitable that teenagers will cultivate online pen pals from other countries. Comparing school and family life, culture, and national politics with these other kids becomes an intriguing aspect of the relationship. It's also a bit of a status symbol back home. When you mention to the teacher and class in Social Studies that you have a cyberspace friend in France, Australia, and Taiwan, what else can they say except "Wow!"
Is there a downside to the adolescent encountering Internet travelers from other lands? In chat rooms, newsgroups, and email, you usually do not see people's faces or hear their voices. There's a tendency for one's mind to try to fill in that ambiguity. People may project their prejudices and stereotypes onto the somewhat shadowy figure at the other end of the Internet. The anonymity resulting from people not seeing or hearing YOU may encourage you to let loose with those stereotyped and prejudiced comments. Teens - who often thrive on cliques and in-group pride - may be prime targets for this unpleasant rejection of foreigners. But the problem here isn't really with the Internet. It's with those prejudices.
Exploring Social Skills and Personal Identity
If adolescents spend a lot of time conversing on the Internet, it's inevitable that their online social skills will improve. They will be encountering people of various ages and cultural backgrounds, so they have the opportunity to learn how to relate to a wide variety of people. Under optimal conditions, those skills may carry over to their in-person life.
Unfortunately, many kids approach chat rooms as if they are computer games. Without seeing or hearing the real person behind the typed words or avatars, they (probably unconsciously) behave as if the other person is some kind of robot or video game target. And so they start shooting profanities, inappropriate sexual remarks, and other words of abuse. Being able to hide behind their own online anonymity makes the abuse even easier to inflict. It provides an easy, safe way to satisfy that need to vent the frustrations of their real life. In some online communities, the hardcore trouble-making adolescents are given the uncomplimentary title of "SNERT" (snot-nosed-eros-ridden-teenager). They can be a real nuisance. In extreme cases they may be banned from the community, especially when they try to hack the computer system (see The Bad Boys of Cyberspace). Of course, not all adolescents are so extreme in their tendency to misbehave online. The more intensely teens act out, the more likely they are having problems in their real life and are using the Internet to vent and escape from those real life tensions.
Cyberspace offers all sorts of opportunities for adolescents to satisfy that need to express, explore, and experiment with their identity. The good aspect of online anonymity is that it encourages people to discuss things about themselves that they would hesitate revealing in real life. Kids can learn a lot about themselves from that. Building a blog or personal web page also is a great exercise in figuring out who you are by what you want to reveal about yourself. In online fantasy worlds and games, teens experiment with all sorts of imaginative identities that express their hidden wishes, needs, and fears. The character they create for themselves may give them the opportunity to act like the type of person they admire. Under ideal conditions, they can learn something about themselves from the characters they create. Maybe they can even develop, in their real life, the traits they admire in their characters. Under less than ideal conditions, the online personae simply become another way to ventilate the frustrations and conflicts of their real lives, without any personal insight or change. It's the difference between using their online characters to work through their problems, as opposed to simply acting them out.
One significant difference between online and offline conversations is that some of the awkwardness of interacting face-to-face and in-the-moment with their peers, especially for younger teens, is a bit tempered, which results in them opening up a bit more when online. Again, it's that online disinhibition effect. Expressing affection to that potential sweetheart is a lot easier via IM than it eyeball to eyeball at school. Unfortunately, so is dumping someone. Even though, at that moment, the adolescent may be trying to avoid dealing with these tricky emotional situations in-person, navigating these situations online can be a good way to practice skills that later will generalize to their face-to-face encounters.
Where Everyone Knows Your Name
More so than anything else, adolescents are drawn to cyberspace because they make friends there. They find new groups to join - a place where they feel like they belong, where everyone knows their name. Just being an onliner automatically makes you part of the in-crowd, and from there you can choose or even create almost any other specific type of group you want. Cyberspace technology excels in all sorts of methods for forming groups - and adolescents take advantage of it because joining and shaping a new group is so important to their evolving identity. What do they do once they're in the group? They joke and play games, complain about their parents and teachers, talk about their lives, support and give advice to each other... the same things they do in "real" life.
Once again, there's a down side. Teens may join online groups that are not in their best interests. Radical political groups, Satanic cults, online "orgies." Of course, these groups exist in the real world too. It's just a lot easier to participate in them when you're sitting at the computer in your bedroom.
The more common pitfall of online friendships and cliques is that they can be somewhat artificial, shallow, and transient. Cyberspace may seem so surreal, so much like a fantasy inside your head, that some people don't take it seriously even though emotions and commitment SEEM to run high. It's like a great interactive TV program that really gets you emotionally involved, but it's just a TV program. To the adolescent craving for a group of good friends, it can be heartbreaking when those pals unexpectedly and inexplicably change their "tune," withdraw, or disappear completely. With just a mouse click, you're gone, almost without leaving any traces behind. It's too easy to say good bye, especially when you can easily exit without even having to say "good bye."
This sometimes shallow and transient quality of online relationships doesn't apply in all cases. People DO find and keep good friends in cyberspace. But artificial best buddies do appear often enough to be a very problematic disappointment, especially to adolescents who are so sensitized to issues about intimacy, trust, and loyalty.
Since we're on the topic of intimacy, let's delve into the other magnet that lures some teens into cyberspace - cybersex. It's certainly isn't shocking news that adolescents are keenly interested in sex. It's an adventure, it calls out to their rising hormone levels, it's a way to separate from - as well as worry, aggravate, and outrage - their parents. It means, to them, that they're developing an adult identity.
What exactly is cybersex? Mostly, it involves "talking dirty" to each other via typed text - describing in detail who is doing what to whom, and how they feel doing it. People may masturbate while they type (which isn't an easy maneuver). Sometimes pictures are exchanged, but that can become an unnecessary technical complication that may ruin the free play of imagination.
Whether or not parents consider this a bad thing for adolescents is largely determined by their values, how explicit the cybersex is, and what those online trysts might lead to. Some may think that the anonymity of cybersex is wrong - that it is superficial, artificial, unnatural - or that sex in any form is inappropriate for adolescents. Others may think that adolescents are going to experiment with sex no matter what adults do, so why not permit them to satisfy their sexual interests and learn about sex via cyberspace encounters? "Personally," one person told me, " I see this as a much safer way to explore their sexual curiosity than in the back seat of a car or behind the bleachers at a game. Wouldn't you rather know your kid is HOME and SAFE than in the streets? The danger only comes if they choose to try and meet someone offline."
One dilemma of online life is that you can never be sure that other people indeed are who they say they are. That 17 year old flirtatious girl could be a 47 year old man. Some chat rooms are supervised in order to protect children from predatory adults, but many are not. Even in those communities that are well supervised, there is little that can be done to prevent predatory adults from pretending to be teens in order to win the favors of young people. If a predator doesn't use an adolescent disguise, he (and usually they are males) may present himself as a supportive, sympathetic confidant who encourages the adolescent to discuss personal problems and become emotionally attached to him. Troubled adolescents who feel alienated from their parents and lonely in general are especially vulnerable. These are the same strategies used by predators in the in-person world. The Internet is just another avenue to launch their abuse against children. Children need to be taught the same sorts of rules that apply to real world encounters with questionable adults:
- Don't divulge personal information to strangers. Don't give out your phone number or address.
- Log off if someone makes you uncomfortable or asks you to do something that is wrong. Write down the username of that person, and inform your parents about it so they can contact the people who operate the chat room.
- Don't accept gifts from strangers or call someone, even if they invite you to call collect.
- NEVER meet anyone offline without adult family supervision.
Parents should make it a point to learn whom their children are chatting with online. Actually, many kids do show considerable savvy in dealing with unpleasant advances and those strategies should be encouraged by parents. One parent told me:
My daughter did have one instance of having an "inappropriate" comment made to her. (She was on a webpage-based text chat specifically for teens) Her response? She just typed "ewwwwwwwwww" and ignored the person after that! Kids these days seem to be generally more streetwise. Issues of abuse and sexuality are discussed in schools from an early age.When I discussed this issue about predators with experienced online adults, some of them wanted to emphasize the REVERSE scenario: adolescents who pretend to be older in order to flirt with unsuspecting adults. Some of the people I spoke to felt that this was an even more common situation than teens being approached by an adult predator. Sometimes the sexual advances of these teens in disguise can be quite explicit.
The unfortunate dilemma with the predator scenario is that some online adults are indeed understanding, caring people who are happy to look after adolescents. While attempting to separate from their parents and distance themselves from everything about them, some adolescents miss out on the opportunity to use their folks as role models. In troubled families, teens may need a benign adult figure to fill in where the parents have been deficient, or to support them and advise them on their real world troubles. I have spoken with many online adults - some of them parents themselves - who were happy to take young people under their wings and help them out as best they could. Sometimes they see themselves as a kind of "surrogate parent." In those cases where adolescents feel especially distant from parents who know nothing about or are hostile towards the Internet, the online "parent" may become a sympathetic, emotionally powerful figure in their lives.
One person told me a story that presented an interesting twist on this issue of parenting on and offline. A father confessed that he and his daughter had a horrid relationship. They fought constantly, often about the daughter's preoccupation with cyberspace. He feared the worse for her. Then, in what turned out to be a stroke of parental genius, he used his computer at work to get on the net and attempted to connect with his daughter online. It worked, better than he had imagined it would. Whenever they had difficult matters to go over, somehow it was easier to chat online - quietly in a room somewhere. Important feelings surfaced and they worked out a lot of problems that way. Later, he confessed that these online encounters were the best thing that ever happened in their relationship.
Caught in the Net: Addiction
Because cyberspace can satisfy so many of the adolescent's needs, there is the possibility of becoming "addicted" to it. Are all teens susceptible to this danger?... No. Some will always be casual users, some may just go through phases of intense Internet use. The ones who do fall prey to the net most likely are experiencing problems in their real lives. Cyberspace becomes an escape, a place to vent, a place to act out or even cry out for help. As Dr. Kimberly Young - a psychologist who studies Internet addiction - points out in her book "Caught in the Net," Internet-obsessed adolescents may become the "identified patient" in the family. Fingers are pointed at them and at the "evils" of the Internet, when the real problems probably lie in the family.
What are some of the danger signals of excessive Internet use? In her book, Dr. Young identifies several warning signs:
- Denial and lying about the amount of time spent on the computer or about what they are doing on the computer.
- Excessive fatigue and changes in sleeping habits, such as getting up early or staying up late (in order to spend more time online).
- Academic problems, usually grades slipping. Sometimes parents might overlook the fact that the computer is the culprit since they assume their children are doing school work at the keyboard.
- Withdrawal from friends and declining interest in hobbies (online friends and activities are taking the place of the "real" world).
- Loss of appetite; irritability when cut-off from computer use; a decline in their appearance or hygiene.
- Disobedience and acting out. Teens may become very hostile when parents confront them. They may deliberately break the computer-use rules that are set. Their reactions may be so intense because they feel that they are being cut off from their attachments to cyberfriends.
How Should Parents Be Involved?
Although the Internet may be one way adolescents attempt to establish themselves as separate, unique individuals who have a social world of their own, that doesn't mean parents shouldn't be involved. Exactly the opposite is true. As is true of all adolescent activities, they need at least some supervision to stay on track and avoid trouble. Some parents fall into the trap of benign neglect. "My kids have to learn about computers. They have to keep up with the other kids. If they're sitting there typing away, it must be a good thing... so I'll just leave them alone."
But getting involved doesn't just mean supervising in order to avert trouble. The world of computers also can become an excellent way for parents and adolescents to have fun together, to get to know each other better. There will be a part of the adolescent - maybe even a part that they try to hide - that will love this.
Get knowledgeable and join in: To be most effective in supervising the adolescent's cyberspace activities, the parent needs to know something about the topic. You don't have to become a hacker yourself, but read up on the topic. Discuss it with other parents. Better yet, explore cyberspace yourself. Talk to your kids about cyberspace and join them in some of their online activities. Cruise web sites together. Use a search engine to find people with your same last name. Build a web page for your family. Even hang out with your child and their friends in a chat room (for a short period of time, if they can tolerate your presence!). There are numerous possibilities.
Talk to them: The old warning "Do you know where your children are?" applies to cyberspace as well as to the real world. Ask them about their Internet use. What web sites and blogs are they visiting? Who's online tonight? Avoiding an accusatory tone, ask them what they like online and why. Sit down with them at the computer and let them take you to their Internet hangouts. Be curious, in a parental but congenial sort of way. Casually ask them about their cyberfriends, what they talk about, what they do on the Internet. Avoid interrogation. Instead, show them that you are interested in knowing more about their cyberfriends.
Acknowledge the good and the bad: Don't vilify cyberspace - that will only alienate the adolescent. Talk about both the pros and cons. Show an acceptance of their cyberlife, but discuss some of the dangers and what steps they should take if they encounter unsavory situations or people.
Make the computer visible: Privacy is a tricky balancing act with the adolescent. They want and need some, but the parent must weigh that demand against the necessity of supervising their activities. Generally speaking, it's probably a good idea to avoid placing the computer in the adolescent's bedroom. Put it in a family area. That makes supervision a lot easier, and it also encourages computering as a family activity. At the very least, avoid the scenario where the adolescent explores cyberspace in his/her bedroom with the door closed. Keep the door open, with the screen visible from the hallway. Stop in every once in a while to inquire about what's happening in this intriguing little world of theirs. If they suddenly close a window as you walk in, you know something is up. It may not be anything serious, they may just want a little privacy... but it's worth talking about.
Set reasonable rules: Parents don't let their kids stay out all night, watch any movie they want, or drive anywhere they want. Adolescents need rules. In fact, believe it or not, they secretly want rules so they don't feel out of control and unprotected by a seemingly uncaring parent. Set limits on when (e.g., after homework) and how much time they can spend socializing and entertaining themselves in cyberspace. Create rules about what exactly they can and can't do on the Internet.
Encourage a balance: Cyberspace is great, but there's more to life than that. Encourage the adolescent to stay involved in "real world" activities too. If there's something they really enjoy on the Internet, find a way to expand that activity into their in-person life. Use the Internet for school projects. Talk on the phone or do something together in-person with your good (trustworthy) cyberfriends. If they enjoy role-playing in MUDs, encourage them to get involved in theater. The goal is to avoid letting the adolescent isolate cyberspace from the rest of their life. Instead, integrate cyberspace into the rest of their life, and encourage them to develop non-Internet activities too.
Software controls: There are a variety of commercial programs that can be used to monitor and control the adolescents activities in cyberspace. These programs can keep a record of web sites they visit, block access to particular web sites or programs, prevent files from being downloaded, set limits on when and for how much time the Internet is being used, and even record everything they type. Of course, if parents wants to install such programs they have to be fairly knowledgeable about computers. The programs aren't perfect either. There are loopholes, and a technically sophisticated adolescent will be able to defeat them. Probably the last thing a parent wants is an ongoing technical battle of wits with their child. If that happens, something has gone awry. Software controls are a tool in the supervision of the adolescent. They are not a substitute for talking and being more personally involved. In other words, they are not a substitute for a caring relationship.
Intervening with addiction: In her book, Dr. Kimberly Young describes some strategies for parents who need to help their children who have fallen into excessive Internet use. Don't try to take the computer away or ban them from using it. This strategy can backfire. Show your caring for the teenager's predicament. Assign an Internet time log. Don't enable adolescents by making excuses for them when they miss school or their grades start falling. Tolerate their emotional outbursts when you try to intervene. If all else fails, seek the help of a professional counselor - ideally, someone who knows something about the Internet.
Discipline misbehavior/encourage humaneness: Most parents apply punishment when a child misbehaves in the real world. The same should be true of their cyberspace misconduct. If a parent discovers that an adolescent is harassing others online or attempting to hack online systems (a phone call from the administrators of the system or online community can be an eye-opener!), discipline is in order. Parents should try not to fall into the attitude of "Oh, it's just a cyberspace game. It doesn't really matter." It does matter. It's not a good idea to let adolescents treat other people online as if they are not really people. If an adolescent can apply compassion for others even in the anonymous world of cyberspace, they can apply it anywhere in life.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
Integrating online and offline living
Addiction to computers and cyberspace
Transference to one's computer and cyberspace
The Psychology of Cyberspace Home Page