Today’s teenagers are such “digital natives” that it probably seems sometimes like they were literally born with a computer chip implanted in their brains. They send and receive Snapchats and Kik and WhatsApp messages on the fly, get their news from Instagram, reblog their favorite angsty poetry on Tumblr, answer questions on Ask.fm, count their followers on Vine, find out the latest gossip on Yik Yak and might even “hang out” virtually more often than IRL (“in real life”).
According to one study, teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 spend almost 200 minutes a day (3 hours, 20 minutes) online on a mobile device. With that much time spent online, they’re bound to frequently encounter risks or unpleasant experiences, whether intentionally or not. But the more parents freak out about these incidents, the less likely their teens are to tell them about it next time.
That’s one of the takeaways of a fascinating new study that explored how teens and their parents track risky situations that occur through online use and how they do—or don’t—communicate about them. In fact, only in one out of four times that a teen encountered a risky online situation did they tell their parents about it (usually to ask for help).
“Teens need help navigating the online risks that they face so that they can learn from and overcome them,” wrote lead author Pamela Wisniewski, Ph.D., of the University of Central Florida, and her colleagues in the new study. “Yet, unless teens feel like they can confide in their parents for help, they will ultimately have to handle these risks on their own.”
The researchers presented their findings at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing on February 27.
They cite some sobering, if unsurprising, statistics in their study:
9% of teens have experienced unwanted sexual solicitations
23% have experienced unwanted exposure to pornography
11% have experienced cyberbullying or online harassment
At least 8% of teens have met a romantic partner online
“These technologies are an everyday part of their teens’ lives,” the authors noted. “Dealing with this new, digital reality is now an unavoidable part of good parenting and needs to be embedded in family communication processes.”
Yet parents often underestimate how often teens experience online risks, such as privacy breaches or information or photos shared without permission, cyberbullying and online harassment, sexual solicitations and exposure to explicit pornographic, violent, deviant or otherwise disturbing content. And teens aren’t likely to volunteer this information unless they’re seeking their parents’ help, the study found.
The researchers recruited 68 pairs of teens and parents (except one grandmother) from across the U.S. to track the teens’ online experiences with risky incidents in weekly diaries for eight weeks. Both the teens and parents also documented how they responded to the incidents. Although teens came from 13 different states, about three in four of the teens came from Pennsylvania in the study, and 60% of them came from two-parent households. Only 9% of the parents had no college education (just over half had some college or a four-year degree), and household incomes ranged from less than $30,000 annually to more than $150,000. Most of the participating teens were white, but 15% were black, 4% were Hispanic and 3% were Asian.
The types of incidents tracked were grouped into four categories: information breaches, online harassment, sexual solicitations and exposure to explicit content (violent, deviant or pornographic). During the study’s two months, the parents and teens reported 249 separate incidents in one of these categories related to the teen’s online use.
But only 15% of these incidents overlapped. That is, only one of every seven incidents was one that the parent and teen both reported happening. The majority of the others were incidents the teens experienced but didn’t share with their parents, with a smaller proportion being incidents the parents observed that the teens didn’t report. The matching reports were most often related to online harassment or sexual solicitations and involved greater risks to the teen. They were also more likely to be situations where the parent found out because their teen was asking for help with the situation.
But all those other times? Teens mostly kept the situation to themselves. They often felt embarrassed or uncomfortable, but they didn’t tell their parents mostly because they thought it was “no big deal.” Or they didn’t want to deal with their parent reacting negatively.
“In 17% of teen-only and 24% of teen-matched reports, the next most cited reason for not telling parents was because the teen felt like the parent would react negatively, often concerned that the parent would punish them for what happened even if it was not their fault,” the researchers reported. And the parent’s version of having a conversation about what happened may come off differently to the teen: “It is possible that teens may implicitly perceive parental lectures as a form of punishment even though parents did not enact formal restrictions.”
Even when parents and teens reported on the same incidents, only in 7% of them did parents actually know the specific details of what happened, and only 2% of the incidents involved teens talking to their parents about their online experience because the parent specifically asked about it.
“We now have more insight as to why family communication processes may break down, and many of these reasons involve how parents perceive and respond to the risks teens encounter online,” the researchers concluded.
But tweaking parents' responses when teens do share information might help those parents bridge the gap of understanding to teens' lives today, Wisniewski suggested.
"When teens talk about their online risk experiences, listen," she told me. "Withhold judgment and look for opportunities to help them navigate some of the strange and disturbing experiences they may encounter online. Understand that they are living in a different world and are exposed to all kinds of content that may be alarming to us, but overreacting does nothing to help teens navigate these experiences. Fear-based parenting is not the solution."
The researchers recommend in their conclusion that both teens and parents need helpful educational materials on how to deal with digital online safety for teens and how teens can resolve negative online situations, especially before they’ve happened.
“This approach would be analogous to providing comprehensive sex education, as opposed to abstinence-only approaches that have proven ineffective,” the authors wrote. They noted that organizations such as Common Sense Media and the Family Online Safety Institute offer help, but the effectiveness of their approaches hasn’t been studied.
But until more educational materials and training are available, the least parents can do is ask their teens more often what’s happening—but resist the urge to lecture or freak out about it if they want to keep those channels of communication open.
And open and honest communication is what research has shown to help reduce risk-seeking behaviors, such as sex, and to promote better well-being, Wisniewski said.
"Acknowledge that we, as parents, really don’t understand what it is like to be a teen in today’s digital world and see this as an opportunity to learn from our teens," she said. "Ask questions. Be interested and engaged without being overly controlling or restrictive. Assume that teens will encounter online risks and teach them strategies for how to cope with them."