Helping Teenagers Learn to Repair Digital Mistakes

Sarcastic comments, tasteless jokes, inappropriate photos. Teenagers sometimes make mistakes in their digital lives that can lead to hurt feelings or worse. As parents, we all want to help our teenagers prevent such mistakes, but they will still happen, no matter how hard we try. How can we better prepare our teenagers to handle the interpersonal issues that arise from digital missteps, to the point where teenagers can fix them before they explode into turmoil?

For today’s teenagers, repairing a digital mistake is an important life skill.

It starts with the concept of “repair.” As adults, we’ve all experienced this. We know how to work past disagreements with friends and family members, even after a “blowout” argument. The problem may have been minor—cleared up with a simple apology. Or it may have been a major obstacle, involving real time and effort in order to move forward. But if the relationship is important to you, you put the time in to make it right.

For today’s teenagers, repairing a digital mistake is an important life skill. Much of their social communication takes place in digital words, images, and videos. There are contextual things that complicate digital communication, but the good news to parents is that the basic skills you need for repair are not that different from our own analog worlds. So what can you do? Here are some simple actions you can take:                       

1. Share your experiences.

Kids need to see that relationships are complex, even for adults. Talk about your own experiences. Maybe an e-mail at work left you upset or feeling hurt? Relate how you were able to address the situation through a face-to-face conversation. Maybe you shared a friend’s news by mistake and then addressed it with an apology and a conciliatory gesture? Real stories of this type serve as a great starting point for a conversation about repair.

2. Model it.

It’s important for kids to see how to manage a mistake—with honesty, empathy, and especially patience. This can be the toughest thing to teach to our digital natives. The pace of their digital communication heightens its sense of urgency. Kids are tricked into feeling like they have to resolve things quickly, but repair is not on the same timeline. Teach your kids that it’s okay to take a breath, gain some perspective, and then set to work on fixing the issue—step by step.

3. Teach that sometimes offline is best.

It can be very difficult to repair an emotionally charged situation without communicating in person. But it’s very easy for kids to forget this, since it’s “natural” for them to communicate online. If the quarrel is more than just a simple one, urge your teen to talk with the person face-to-face or at least by phone. Choosing the right means of communication is part of the skill set of conflict resolution.

4. Embrace this opportunity, while teens are still living at home.

Mistakes, digital or offline, present an opportunity to teach teens good life skills in general. Owning up to your missteps, apologizing earnestly, and returning to being a good friend is the best way to get past any issue. Being there with your teen as it happens gives you the occasion to help in a meaningful way. Not only does it support them at the moment, but it will bolster their confidence in being able to handle future social difficulties, too.

Problems are inevitable. They are a part of growing up, just like they were when we were kids. As parents, we can get so focused on preventing the bad things that we fear will happen when our kids interact with peers via a game, group texts, or social media that we sometimes forget to model how to repair problems. But our teens are looking to their parents to help them navigate their complex world (even though it may not seem that way at times). You don’t need to know how to hashtag an Instagram post or share a snap on Snapchat in order to help. You have all the tools you need in the collection of your lived experiences. Share those with your teen so they can benefit. Their world may look different to you, but it’s really the same as it’s ever been.


Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. She is also the founder of Raising Digital Natives, which helps parents, schools, and kids grow a culture of positive digital citizenship. Want to learn more? Take the How Screenwise Are You quiz.