SANDY — Young people use their parents' technical limitations and lack of time to their advantage as they hide online activities that are sometimes risky, rude and even illegal, according to a study by McAfee on how kids behave online, including activities their parents might not suspect.
The report, "Digital Deception: Exploring the Online Disconnect between Parents and Kids," said what parents think their kids are up to is not reality in many cases. Tech-savvy kids know how to hide activities from parents who are strapped for time, trust their kids and may lack skills to figure out precisely where their little "digital natives" are playing in cyberspace.
For Michelle Dennedy, vice president and chief privacy officer at McAfee, the surprise is not that kids push the envelope. It's that so many — about 74 percent of parents — give up trying to monitor their kids and how they use technology because they feel inadequate to do so effectively.
"I don't think that 'it's hard' is a good excuse," Dennedy said. "Instead of giving up, take it piece by piece. And start young." Parents who have not already talked to their kids about boundaries when it comes to tech, social networks and how they use the Internet may find it's too late to effect change, she warned.
But there's a lot at stake, and parents really don't always know what's going on. More than half of the young people surveyed admit they use the Internet to search out sexual topics; when asked, parents put the number around 13 percent. Nearly half of the kids have looked up videos or websites their parents would not approve of and more than a third seek out simulated or real violence online.
"This study has made it exceedingly clear that parents need to get involved, to understand what their children are doing online, and to engage them in a myriad of ways that will keep them living safe online," Dennedy said. "Children of all ages are shouting for guidance."
How it happens
It's a problem fueled by complacency and exhaustion, experts say. Sixty-two percent of parents don't think their kids can get in serious trouble online. But even if they are worried, the study showed that 80 percent of parents don't know how to find out what their kids are doing online and three-quarters "simply admit defeat and claim they do not have the time or energy to keep up with their children." They "hope for the best."
The report said children often manage to bypass surveillance if their parents deploy it — and fewer than 4 in 10 do. The vast majority of kids (92 percent) know passwords set by their parents, while more than half of parents think the passwords are secret from their kids.
As for Internet safety, 71 percent of parents think they've talked to their kids about how to behave online, but only 44 percent of the youths agree.
The survey included 1,173 youths and 1,301 parents. The 2013 survey is the first by McAfee to specifically look at the risky behaviors of children 10-12, the so-called "tweens." They are supposedly too young to engage on social media sites like Facebook, but 85 percent say they have their own Facebook profiles. And 58 percent of them "believe they know how to hide what they do from their parents online," the report said. That includes the quarter who erase traces of where they have been online or use private browser settings to hide activity.
Teens outfox their parents in a variety of ways, including using social media sites parents don't know exist. The survey said the most popular social site among the young people is Facebook, followed by Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and Snapchat.
Some kids (14 percent) say they've hacked into someone else's social network or email. And twice that many have witnessed mean behavior online.
Parents reported they think their kids are online an hour or two a day. On average, one-fourth of youths spend five to six hours online each day.
Among other findings, the report said 22 percent of those ages 10-23 say they use mobile devices to hide their activity from parents. It also noted that half of teens post personal information like email addresses. Nearly a third post personal activities, like who they date.
Deanna Lambson and her husband, Don, don't leave much to chance. The Sandy couple has six kids, ages 8 to 24, and every one of them is online to some degree, whether to socialize, for entertainment or to work on school reports. So the Lambsons have made tech behavior a family issue — and recruited the kids to help out. They not only monitor each device, but the kids have helped them look at programs and they've all thoroughly discussed the rules.
They know what they are allowed to do and where they can't go with their technology. That doesn't mean the Lambsons assume nothing slips through. "It's not that I don't trust them; they are good kids. But kids are targeted, and there's a lot of evil out there," said Lambson. "We live in a saturated society, so we need to take off the blinders."
Some parents say that kids will get around any filter or technique a parent tries, and the McAfee study found that kids are pretty sophisticated in their ability to bypass things, if they want. But Lambson believes that "if they have to jump through a lot of hoops to get around them, it's less likely." She said they use filters that fit the individual devices and they also count on family accountability. It flows both ways. Just as the kids know the parents are going to see where they've gone with their technological devices, using filters and spyware, the parents let their children look at their reports, as well.
"They check us, too. It's about accountability."
Dennedy pointed out there are lots of programs for different devices that can help monitor activity. But the first step lies with parents and real conversations about dangers and challenges and boundaries. Parents need to identify individual problems. "If someone is addicted to a mobile device, start there," she counseled.
There are three key issues: Cyber security, which is protecting personal information and data; cyber safety, which is about personal safety as you venture online; and cyber ethics. The three can overlap. The virtual world can be a mean place and children need help, guidance and monitoring to navigate it, she said. The point is having technology serve individuals and families well. And not giving up, she said.
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