Think You Know What Your Child's Up to Online? Think Again

Parents underestimate exposure to bullying, sexual content, survey finds

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 30, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Parental perceptions can be way off when it comes to what their kids are exposed to while surfing the Internet, according to a new study that puts an e-spin on the enduring generation gap.

The survey of 454 parent-child pairs revealed that although nearly one-third of the 10- to 16-year-olds polled said they had been bullied online, just 10 percent of parents were aware of that.

Parents also underestimated how often their child was exposed to online pornography, the survey found.

Such parent-child disconnects highlight the need for greater parental involvement in their child's cyber world, the researchers said.

"As a parent, I've seen it firsthand," said study author Sahara Byrne, an associate professor of communication at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Kids can't easily get away from the drama of being a teenager with constant access to their social network. I also get how hard it can be to talk to them about potential problems. They don't want to talk to you about stuff that goes on online, either because everything is fine at that moment or because they think we don't understand it. And then one day, it's not fine."

Parents need to ask "how they're doing online from the moment they can access it, and keep asking even if they don't want to share or don't have anything to share," Byrne added.

Another expert agreed that parents need to take responsibility for their children's online behaviors. But he added that the challenges aren't new.

"It seems to me that the rates of parental ignorance about bullying and porn use may not be all that different from pre-Internet times," said Michael Gilbert, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California. "Children have been bullied as long as schools have been around and kids getting hold of pornography is as old as, well, pornography. What's changed is the media -- and the ease with which children are able to access them. So, I'm not all that surprised by these numbers."

"As to parental monitoring," Gilbert added, "there are filters, placing devices in open areas, imposing possible time and content restrictions. But, in the end, parental responsibility extends to this chore, too. Openly talking with children, inviting them to peruse the web with you, are excellent ways to deal with these issues. The medium is different and technology surely makes the task harder but, in the end, it comes down to parental involvement and support."

Among the survey findings:

  • The more parents believed their own child was less likely to run into trouble online than other children, the more likely they were to underestimate whether and how much their child had been cyber-bullied and/or approached by a stranger online.
  • The more privacy a child had while online, the more likely the parents were to underestimate exposure to cyber-bullying.
  • While 15 percent of the children polled said they had themselves cyber-bullied someone else, just 5 percent of parents said that was the case.
  • Parents whose children said they had trouble talking with them were also more likely to underestimate how often strangers were contacting their children online.

The vast majority of parents surveyed were mothers, and most were white. All were asked their thoughts on the online behavior of just one child.

Among the subjects broached to parent and child: the degree of the child's exposure to or participation in cyber-bullying; exposure to the unsolicited (and perhaps sexual and/or "weird") advances of a stranger online; and accidental or intentional exposure to sexual content online.

Parents were also asked to indicate their parenting style, generally ranging from lax to strict. As well, they were asked to indicate whether they viewed their child as smarter than average when surfing the web, how often they went online in a private place (like their bedroom), and how easy or difficult they felt it was to discuss online behavior with their child.

Children, for their part, were asked to indicate how often they typically went online and when.

Parents who engage in a more lax (or "permissive") parenting style were somewhat more likely to underestimate how much their child was accidently exposed to sexual content. In general, however, parenting style wasn't a strong indicator of parents underestimating risky online situations. The survey also found that parents more accurately predicted the amount of exposure their child had to sexual content online the more their child accessed the Internet in a private space.

Keeping the computer in public view in the home is generally recommended, but overall, the authors concluded that parents need to up their game when it comes to communicating with their children about exactly what's transpiring when they go online.

"I find that it helps to share stories in the news about the consequences of being cruel online or through mobile media," Byrne said. "There is a new story every week. We talk about it."

No child is above risks, or too smart for the risks, Byrne added. "And our study suggests that if you think your child is smarter than others when online, you might be among those who are unaware of what's going on," she said.

The survey findings were published online recently in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

More information

For more on social networking and children, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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