Parents have no clue about teens’ online lives, says study

This shouldn’t come as a big surprise: There is a gap between teenagers and parents over their understanding of family rules about being online, according to a new study by the National Cyber Security Alliance.

The findings should be bracing for any parent who struggles to figure out social norms for teen’s technology use. There aren’t any, it seems.

Most teens are engaged in some online activities that their parents don’t know about and that parents think they have explicitly prohibited.

A few nuggets:

  • 60 percent of teens say they have created accounts that their parents were unaware of, such as on social media sites or for apps they wanted to use.
  • Just 13 percent of online teens say that their parents are “completely aware” of the full extent of their activities online.

Of course, the generation gap has always been evident in how the young and old use technology. But from this study, which was co-sponsored by Microsoft, one wonders if parents and teens are even speaking the same language.

Take just one rule – no devices at the dinner table. Simple, clear cut. Yet 55 percent of parents say devices are prohibited compared to 36 percent of teens.

Or how about whether a child has to ask permission before downloading a new app or game or joining a social network?

Half of parents say teens are supposed to get parental permission. Just 16 percent of teens say that. The same gap holds true for sharing passwords to online accounts with parents – 50 percent of parents say teens are prohibited from sharing, but again, only 16 percent of teens say there is a rule.

What is happening?

The study relied on two surveys, one of 804 online teens between 13 and 17 and another of 810 online parents. The parents and teens in the sets are not from the same families.  The margin of error of both surveys is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The survey also shows why it is exasperating for a parent to figure out social norms around online rules. Parents may like to talk big among themselves about laying down the law, but they might not follow through.

For example, 41 percent of parents say they have screen time limits while only 15 percent of teens say so. As for having devices in their bedroom after a certain time in the evening, 31 percent of parents say there is a limit, while 11 percent of teens say so.

Since many parents don’t really know what’s going on with their teens online, they may want to rethink how they approach digital safety, Michael Kaiser, NCSA’s executive director, said in a statement:

In an era where there’s a new app every day, it’s important that we change the lens of online safety from a tracking and monitoring perspective to a more empowering approach that prepares young people to better respond to the various challenges they will likely encounter in their online lives.

The group’s message: Talk about issues such as online safety and how teens can help each other with situations that emerge. Still, if parents are truly serious about the rules, they probably should put them in neon lights in the teen’s bedroom.

Above: A teen texting. (Jim Gensheimer/Mercury News)


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