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The secret lives of kids online

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Think you know what your kids are up to online? A pair of recent studies suggest many parents are in the dark, even if they say they know what their kids are doing.

The studies, one from Intel Security and the other from Wayne State University, found the majority of parents are connected with their kids on social networking sites and see this as a way to monitor posts and interactions with others. Nearly all (94 percent) of the parents Intel Security surveyed said they are aware of their kids’ online activities.

Yet the same study found that more than 4 in 10 kids use aliases or secret alternate accounts to keep parents or school faculty from seeing certain posts.

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Many kids admitted to abusive online behavior. More than one-third of the 8- to 16-year-olds in the Intel Security study said they had bullied someone on social media — had made fun, called someone names, tagged mean photos, or made threats. This would likely come as a surprise to many parents — just 13 percent thought their kids had ever bullied someone online.

In the Wayne State study, which included sixth- and ninth-graders and focused on abusive online behaviors in dating relationships, more than half of the kids who had dated admitted to having monitored or stalked a partner, bullied or harassed a partner, or shared embarrassing pictures or videos.

Though kids may act in ways online that they would not face-to-face, those on the receiving end find it no less hurtful, said Poco Kernsmith, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Wayne State and a coauthor of that study.

“These things follow kids home, which should be a safety zone,” she said. “They aren’t confined to school.”

One of the most alarming findings from the research, meanwhile, wasn’t related to abusive behaviors. More than a quarter of the kids in the Intel Security survey said they either had met or would meet someone in person whom they had first met online.

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Researchers say it’s important for parents to monitor kids’ Internet and phone use, though many parents struggle with how closely to do this. Some feel “outpaced” by technology, Kernsmith said, and don’t know how to check phone or online histories or look for new apps. Many also feel uncomfortable asking for kids’ online or phone passwords.

In her study, parental supervision of technology — including knowing kids’ passwords, checking phone or Internet histories, and checking social media accounts — was associated with lower levels of abusive online behaviors. General supervision — knowing where kids are and whom they’re with, and keeping open lines of communication — was even more strongly linked to lower levels of abusive behaviors.

Parents should also help kids navigate relationships and encourage them to lean on their values when interacting online, said Sara Villanueva, a psychologist and author of the book “The Angst of Adolescence: How to Parent Your Teen and Live to Laugh About It.” Kids indiscriminately accepting friend requests to grow their social networks could “dilute the concept of friendship,” she says.

“Communicate early and often with your kids — talk to them about what real friends are and whose opinions they truly value,” she said. “Talk to them, too, about what they value in themselves and what makes them who they are. Encourage them not to lose perspective when they’re online.”

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Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami
.albernaz@gmail.com.