Not to be a total downer two days before Thanksgiving, but we need to talk about kids and online safety. When I look back on my Internet use as a teenager, I’m horrified and want to squirrel my son away in an off-the-grid bunker in Montana before he learns how to point and click. But that’s not going to happen, so I’m going to have to get proactive with parental controls, privacy settings, and that whole “talking” thing.
On a more depressing note, the topic of online safety and teens has been thrust into the public eye more prominently with an increasing rash of teen suicides due to online bullying. Online bullying is more common than most realize, and it comes in varying shapes and colors. Facebook is the most recognizable format (where teens can openly harass others or rally people against one person with an anti-so-and-so page). But I’ve also read more than one horror story involving Skype and other video chat sites.
Are parents freaking out? Yes. A study released Tuesday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society finds that the majority of parents are “very concerned” with their teens’ interactions with strangers online. Another 19% say they’re somewhat concerned, and a bizarre 19% say they’re not too concerned or not at all concerned. Who are those people?
There are some interesting demographic breakdowns in terms of how concerned parents are over their kids’ online activity. When it comes to interaction with strangers, parents in households earning more than $30K a year were nearly 20% more likely to say they were “very concerned” than parents in households earning less than $30K.
The age of the teen also plays a role in parents’ level of concern. In a survey published last year in First Monday, 78% of parents of children ages 10-14 said they were either extremely concerned or very concerned that their child might meet a stranger online who intends to do them harm (1% of the parents in that study actually had children who met strangers online who intended to do them harm).
In the Pew study, parents of 12- to 13-year-olds were more concerned about their kids Internet activity than parents of older teens across the board, particularly where strangers were involved (63% said they’re very concerned, versus 48% of parents of older teens).
And here’s an interesting nugget of info for you: African-American parents were significantly more likely than white parents (by a margin of nearly 20%) to say they they’re very concerned about the possibility of their teens’ Web activity impacting their future education and employment prospects. In terms of income, parents with the highest and lowest incomes were less concerned about this than middle-income parents. So if you’re the type to champion color- and class-blindness and insist that we all need to focus on our similarities instead of our differences (dog whistle for “kill Affirmative Action” and “don’t raise taxes on high earners”), this is pretty convincing evidence that not everyone can afford to take risks.
Here’s another interesting nugget: older parents are more concerned about their teens’ online activity than younger parents. For example, 85% of parents over the age of 40 expressed concern about how much information advertisers can gather on their kids, versus 69% of parents under the age of 40. Similarly, reputation management and online activity is also more of a concern for parents over 40 (73%) than those under the age of 40 (58%).
This surprises me, since I assumed the opposite to be true. Having grown up with the Internet in my home, I’m intensely aware of the danger the online world can pose to kids. But those who aren’t as familiar with the Web may be even more suspicious of it.
“Older parents are significantly less likely to be social media users themselves, and as such, may be more anxious about the risks of an environment that they don’t fully understand,” the report’s lead author Mary Madden tells me.
If you want to get even more bummed out about kids' online safety, you can read this report on kids and online cruelty.
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