SALT LAKE CITY — There are two main philosophies when it comes to monitoring the online behaviors of teens in homes across the country. Some parents dog every site their children visit, checking the browsing history, logging into Facebook and other social media pages, as well as blocking unsavory sites. Other parents say they simply trust their teens to do the right thing when they're online.
Jewels Olsen falls into the second camp. "I don't monitor," said the Orem mom of seven, four of the kids still at home. "I have an 18-year-old daughter I trust implicitly and she is the only other one with the password to the computer." Besides that, the computer sits in the living room, where everyone can see what anyone is doing on it.
But not all families are so in sync, their online activity so transparent. The just-released biannual survey by online security company McAfee, which questioned more than 1,000 teens and their parents, found a significant disconnect between what parents believe their kids are doing online and what the teens themselves said they do.
Nearly a third of parents just hope for the best, McAfee online safety expert Stanley Holditch told the Deseret News. And while nearly half of parents think they know their kids' online behavior, 71 percent of the teens surveyed said they'd hidden online behavior from their parents. Two years ago, that was just 45 percent of teens. Females are more likely to hide what they do than males.
Nasty, naughty and mean
Of the teens, 32 percent said they had deliberately accessed pornography, 48 percent look up assignments and test answers online and 62 percent have seen cruel behavior online.
Meanwhile, a Cox Communication survey in conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that parents of younger kids, "tweens" ages 10-13, are doing "a good job" of monitoring that younger group's online behavior, including talking to them about concerns and setting rules for Internet use on home computers. There's need for improvement because most kids now use mobile devices to go online, the company said.
Parental controls set up on personal computers won't impact those kids' online activities.
While 82 percent of the parents in the Cox survey said they know what their tweens do online, 44 percent of the kids said they have looked at things online their parents would not have approved of and 34 percent said they've lied to their parents about their online activity. More than 40 percent have received a personal message from a stranger online, while 1 in 8 of the tweens has been bullied online.
Perception v. reality
Parents of the teenagers told McAfee they believe their children spend a couple of hours a day online. The teens themselves put the estimate at about five hours a day. Half of the kids said they would modify their behavior if they knew their parents were watching.
What's particularly troubling to Holditch is the "serious nature" of some online activity: More than half say they've hacked someone else's social networking profile. And close to one-third have downloaded pirated copies of music and movies. Both of those activities could lead to legal consequences, noted Holditch, who pointed to a case in Georgia where two young teens bullied a girl using her online profile, which they hacked. They are being sued for libel and defamation. And pirating music and movies can cost someone tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
Worse, he added, is learning that 12 percent of the teens had met in real life someone they'd only known online. "Do you know how easy it is for someone to misrepresent themselves online?" he asked.
Online is where youths spend chunks of their time. Another report out this week, by Common Sense Media's Program for the Study of Children and Media, pointed out that 90 percent of teenagers use social media and more than half use it daily. Just over 4 in 10 describe themselves as "addicted" to mobile devices. That full report is online at http://www.commonsense.org/research
Psychologist Gregory Jantz, author of "Hooked: The Pitfalls of Media, Technology and Social Networking," believes parents should pay attention to how much time their children spend online and "networking," because online interaction may actually hurt the ability to relate in person. "When people abuse drugs and alcohol, they are trying to feel better, yet they are worsening their situation," he said. "We're finding this is also true for those who spend excessive amounts of time on social networking sites. Perhaps the hardest hit from social media addiction is the family unit."
But some experts warn that too much monitoring by parents can also harm family relationships. A Pew Research Center study that found two-thirds of parents monitor their children's online activities also noted it's likely to lead to arguments between that parent and child.
That's something Clair Barrus would just as soon avoid. "My approach is to have clear guidelines and to try to foster a good relationship with open communication," said the Draper father of twin girls, 16. "I try to ask them often how life is, do they have any concerns, is there anything they want to talk about? They can share anything with me. I try to create a safe environment for them."
Holditch said McAfee hopes parents will use the data to start a conversation with their kids. "Ask point blank if they're doing some of these things," he said, adding that it's a chance to re-emphasize values, including not cheating. Simply following the Golden Rule, online or in person, avoids many issues that can get people in trouble.
"If you kids are doing some of these things, it doesn't mean they're bad kids. It means they're kids. Kids are naturally curious," Holditch said. ..."If you have a picture of what your child is doing, you will get to the teachable moments."
Among the ways teens hide their online activities, according to McAfee's survey:
— 53 percent of teens clear browser history;
— 45.9 percent of teens minimize a browser when an adult can see it;
— 19.5 percent use private browsing;
— 19.9 percent manipulate social media privacy settings to block parents.
Other tricks include disabling parental controls, setting up duplicate email and social network accounts and simply lying about online activities.
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