Kids online: Parents worry about reputation, behavior, advertising, safety

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 21 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Nicole Bullock works on several electronic devices with her daughter Rosie, 12, at their home in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The list of things that worry parents as kids go online is growing. "Stranger danger" fears have been joined by concerns about reputation, becoming an advertising target and how a digital footprint can impact a child's real-world journey into adulthood, according to a new report on the American family and life online.

Just ask Jennifer Kelsey. The Salt Lake City mom says her daughter Samantha, 14, has both email and a Facebook account and that has meant lots of conversations about what kind of a trail one might leave behind from actions online. Her daughter's plans include college and a good job; her mom wants to protect her future prospects, so she checks in periodically to see what's going on.

She's not alone. Friday, the Pew Internet Project and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University released a report on "Parents, Teens and Online Privacy," based on a nationally representative survey. The report confirmed that parents have an expanding number of concerns about their children's online activities and showed that more parents have taken steps to see what their kids are doing in cyberspace and to protect their safety and their reputation.

Parental anxiety over a child's technology use isn't new, but the digital world is increasingly complex, said Mary Madden, a research associate at Pew and the report's co-author. As parents consider the challenges and potential ramifications, guiding or even outright managing a child's personal information and privacy can be a big task.

"It's daunting to manage your own settings as an adult, even," she said. "I think parents are sensitive to the fact that kids are uniquely valuable and vulnerable consumers in these spaces and they naturally want to protect their kids."

An advertising target

The report said 81 percent of parents worry about how much information advertisers can get about a child from online behavior. Nearly three-fourths of the parents of online teens are concerned about their child's interactions with people they don't know. And 69 percent also worry about the impact of a child's online activites on their academic and job prospects.

A like number are concerned about management of a child's reputation online.

The younger the teen, the more concern, Madden said, and some parents are intervening. Many talk to their kids about their concerns and potential problems. About a third of the parents of teens who are online have helped them set up their privacy settings, and half have used parental controls, including filtering and blocking.

Nicole Bullock, also in the Salt Lake area, considers herself savvy in a digital world, and she has the resume to prove it as the social media manager for Degreesearch.org. She's been online herself for years, including blogging for nine years. She also attends social media events regularly.

Her daughter Rosie, 12, has long been interested in the digital world her mom occupies and has wanted to be online herself. She's too young for Facebook, Bullock said, but has been allowed to have a Twitter account and an email account. Bullock, like Kelsey, maintains the right to be involved in determining how much her daughter can do online.

Even when you've initially settled on privacy settings, they have to be revisited on occasion. "It requires a fair amount of attention; you can't set and forget. Many of these services do change default settings over time," Madden noted.

Setting boundaries

Her own comfort level online is good, Bullock said, and she's perhaps more comfortable than some parents with the legalese of social media privacy policies, for instance. Madden said that's a real struggle for some parents.

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