Zwei Jugendliche die gemeinsam auf ein Smartphone schauen.

Recommendations for parents of adolescents between 12 and 18 years old

Digital media are omnipresent in the world today – and that particularly applies to adolescents. They have grown up with smartphones and the Internet, and use the opportunities they provide quite naturally. Nevertheless, it is important that they are guided in their use of media by parents and others close to them. The focus should be on talking about the content but also the risks associated with using the Internet – with the aim of ensuring that young people use digital media responsibly and safely. They should be able to critically question both information and their own behaviour.

Using digital media comes naturally to young people. They use digital media to communicate with friends and are not worried about trying out new apps. So they quickly make the impression of being adept with all things technical. However, being able to use media properly involves being able to take a critical and responsible approach to media content and technological possibilities. In this respect, experience of life (which you have as an adult) is often just as important as technical skills. 

Observe adolescents, talk to them and gradually give them more freedom. Always remain interested in their media discoveries: actively ask them what currently moves them. Suggest watching a series together or play an adolescent’s favourite game and talk about it.

Explain that more independence also means more responsibility, for example with regard to subscription costs, but also with regard to security aspects, sensitive issues and appropriate behaviour in the digital world.

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A good balance between online and offline activities is extremely important for both the physical and psychological development of children and adolescents. Exercise is important at every age – not least because everyday routine for adolescents is often lacking in physical activity.

Boredom does not immediately have to be combated with a smartphone, tablet or gaming console. Today we know that creativity is actually stimulated by a phase of doing nothing. It is also important for a person's development to learn to tolerate boredom from time to time. Collect ideas together with your adolescent children for offline activities or have a competition as to who can go the longest without a mobile, computer or gaming console.

Lots of adolescents like using their smartphone as a source of relaxation – here too it is worth considering what offline possibilities could have the same effect.

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How long should adolescents be allowed to use a smartphone, surf the net, watch TV or play computer games a day? And when is it too much? These questions are obvious, but do not go far enough. The important thing is what kind of media content is being consumed and what are the reasons behind it. In addition, young people are different in terms of their interests, their personality, but also their ability to self-reflect, so generalised statements about the possible length of time actually make little sense. What might be too much for one, is absolutely acceptable for another. What is important is that they also engage in other activities and leisure time occupations.

Surveys show that many young people even set rules for themselves, for example about spending less time on their smartphones. For example, they might impose a restriction on themselves of one charging a day, or set themselves time limits or say that their mobile phone has to be put away while they are doing their homework, at dinner or after a certain time in the evening. However, young people also admit that they often find it difficult to follow their own rules all the time.

As adults, it is important to make sure that the mutual agreements on screen times are actually followed.

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As an adult close to a child, you can set an example when it comes to screen- and mobile-free times. Make sure that your mobile phone is on silent mode during dinner, weekend activities and conversations. This will ensure you are not distracted and that you can focus entirely on what you are supposed to be doing – and on the people around you. To ensure that everyone sticks to the rules, you can, for example, specify somewhere for all mobile phones to be stored during a meal or other mutual offline activities.

You should also think about your own media habits and take advantage of suitable opportunities to critically examine media content, e.g. by examining your child's favourite casting show or TV series together: how are the candidates and main characters portrayed? What effect does that create?

Whether in social networks or when shopping online: all over, we are prompted to enter our personal data. And then there are devices such as smart watches which collect data – or cloud services which allow access to your own photos, videos and other stored content from wherever you happen to be.

The Data Protection Act is intended to protect against the misuse of personal data. However, in the fast-moving and rambling Internet it is often difficult to enforce (not least because many providers are foreign).

Particularly young people, who are digital natives, must be aware that it can be problematic to post and share personal information and photos of themselves or others. Once things are online, it is often virtually impossible to have them deleted. Or they are distributed without the person concerned being able to control what happens. 

If you are active in social networks, you should certainly investigate the privacy settings and check them at regular intervals. In this way, young people can consciously decide who can see which posts, photos and videos. Friend lists and your own Likes also do not have to be shared publicly.

In the case of online acquaintances, you have to remember that there are such things as fake profiles. People who have a sexual interest in minors unfortunately often use social networks and chats to make contact with children. A healthy mistrust and restraint in disclosing personal information (name, address, etc.) and photos are important.

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Everyone has the right to their own image. That means I can decide what I want to happen to a photo or video of myself. Before I put photos or videos that show other people online, I have to ask them for their consent. Exceptions to this rule are public events, such as concerts and big occasions where the participants deliberately pose for a photo (e.g. a wedding). And if it is in the public interest, the photo can simply be published, as is the case with mug shots. 

Copyright law also applies to third-party images, videos and other media content. They can be used for your own purposes at school and at home. But without citing a source or having consent from the legitimate owners, this kind of content must not be distributed. And under no circumstances should you say that you have taken/made them yourself. There is, however, what is referred to as free/open content which can be used free of charge. It is important to check the rights of use in each case.

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With digital media, access to violent or pornographic content is easier and even youth protection programmes do not offer a full guarantee of security. There are often even competitions at school about who can find or send the most crazy/crass videos. Adolescents like to provoke others and rebel against traditional moral concepts.

Rules and bans have little effect here. Discussions are more effective: What are the reasons behind the consumption and distribution of violent or pornographic content? How do young people feel when they do this? What does the content trigger within them?

And do the adolescents actually know that they may be liable to prosecution? For example, if the police find a video showing brutal violence or hard porn on a mobile phone? The ownership and distribution of media content in which the dignity of people is seriously violated are forbidden. Illegal pornography comprises sexual acts with children, animal or with violence. In general, pornographic content may not be made available to anyone under the age of 16 – this means that it is forbidden to show or send them such content.

As a general rule, you should discourage young people from sending photos or videos which show them naked or in a compromising pose. However, erotic selfies are also sent as proof of someone's love, for flirting or as a dare: this is called "sexting". If this happens, there is no point in condemning their behaviour. Try to understand what led up to it. Report it to the police if it happened under duress.

Moreover, when minors photograph themselves naked or film themselves e.g. during masturbation, they can be accused of producing child pornography.

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Some users forget about good behaviour online because they are not actually facing anyone and in fact can move around the Internet totally anonymously. Unfortunately, negative experiences are not rare. Cyberbullying, for example, is when someone is embarrassed and bullied in social networks over a long period of time. There are also incidences of insults, discrimination, hostility and hate speech based on where people come from, the colour of their skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion or ideology.

Encourage young people to be respectful online. That applies just as much to the sending of messages and e-mails as it does to commenting on media content or expressing an opinion.

Adolescents must also be aware that the Internet is not a lawless space. And anyone violating the dignity of others or inciting others to be violent is liable for prosecution. And even though cyberbullying is not an explicit statutory offence, perpetrators can be called to account, for example for slander, libel or blackmail.

If children become the victims of cyberbullying, or are subjected to hate speeches or discrimination, screenshots should be taken as evidence. Do not hesitate to ask for professional help.

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Help adolescents develop strategies to critically examine media content. Tell children that not everything that may look professional and seem reputable is actually genuine. Show what motives can be behind fake news and what makes a credible source of information.

Adolescents should also understand marketing strategies as such, e.g. ads that pop up in games or apps, or product placements on the YouTube and social media channels of influencers and other idols. Explain to them the economic interests behind such advertising deals.

Particularly in the case of influencers, and in fact generally in the celebrity and advertising business, the focus is on conveyed values, role models and beauty ideals. Discuss this issue with your adolescent children and make it clear that the photos and videos shown usually present a distorted sense of reality. Flawless skin, shiny hair, perfect bodies and bulging muscles - Photoshop and other processing programmes make it easy to retouch images and video recordings.

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Age ratings provide guidance as to whether games, films, television programmes or apps are appropriate to a child's age or whether their content could be disturbing. But it is certainly necessary to judge things for yourself as every adolescent reacts differently. This means that even content that is deemed appropriate for a particular age can still upset a young person and produce an emotional reaction. 

In the case of video games, the PEGI symbols, which are standardised throughout Europe, indicate the age group for which a game is suitable (3, 7, 12, 16, 18). Furthermore, pictograms on the packaging show whether the game contains violence, sex, drugs, discrimination, vulgar expressions, frightening content or forms/elements of gambling. 

The Swiss Commission for the Protection of Minors in Film (JIF) formulates recommendations on admissible ages for cinema films and audio-visual media. Imported film carriers from Germany are usually provided with the age rating of the FSK (the self-regulatory commission of the German film industry).

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Used responsibly, digital media offers lots of good opportunities. YouTube is full of tutorials (explanatory videos) which can help children learn and do their homework. It is important to find trustworthy sources and well-prepared videos that convey the learning content correctly. What are referred to as "how-to" videos are used to explain instructions step by step, whether for creative activities, such as painting or making music, for make-up or hairdressing, for crafts or computer applications. And lots of games are not just fun but also offer a range of valuable learning topics.

Digital media can also be used creatively in very different ways. Photo or sound stories, self-produced blogs, vlogs and films, or perhaps even a programming workshop – there are numerous ways in which adolescents can develop and use their digital skills in a playful way.

One suitable family activity is geocaching, in which a smartphone is used for digital paper chases.

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