I recently had the opportunity to lead our Wired Generation workshop for a group of elementary school parents. We talked about risk behavior for teens and tweens concerning cell phones, gaming systems, email, and online blog sites. Afterward the most interesting comment was from a mom who remarked, “I thought I had a few more years before having to deal with this.” Unfortunately it’s not true. This is a mistake that many parents of tweens are making.
Teen online behavior is quickly becoming one of the most studied aspects of adolescence. Every six months you can find another study that has been done that identifies the risky behavior of teens in their online habits. The newest study by the Polly Klass Foundation is one of the first to look at both teens (13-18) and tweens (8-12).
The Trickle Down
Whatever I was doing my little brother wanted to do as well. That’s how things work between siblings when you’re ten and eight. Whether good or bad, most of his social behavior he learned from me. The same pattern are still occurring today with teens. There is a trickle down effect in risky behavior online. 1 in 5 tweens report being online without their parents knowledge. Ten percent of them IM or chat with people online they have never met. Twelve percent of them email with strangers and get asked personal questions by people they only know online. Keep in mind that these children are as young as age eight.
Each of these statistics is about a fourth of what they are in the teen ranks but as tweens become more net savvy it is easy to see how tweens have followed. With the average child’s first exposure to online pornography being age nine it is becoming more and more imperative that parents address online risk behavior with their younger tweens. As a parent, you can’t afford to think, “Once I give them a phone, then we’ll talk about responsible usage,” or “When they get an Instagram account, then we’ll address the kind of photos they can post.” You really can’t talk about safety with technology at too young of an age because they are always surrounded by it.
The jump is risk behavior from tween to teen is enormous. The number of tweens that email strangers may only be twelve percent, but in teens it jumps to 54%. Other categories of behavior take the same predictable jump in teens. The graph above shows the typical teen’s experience online. Only three percent of tweens talk about meeting someone they only know online, but 30% of teens report the same activity. Also of note is 1 in 4 teens admit to talking about sex with someone online they have never met.
Girls are Outdoing the Boys
Across the board girls participate in more unhealthy online behavior than boys. 44% of girls have lied about their age when communicating online compared to only 25% of boys. Nearly 1 in 5 girls have done so more than four times. Pictures and personal information have been sent over the web by 32% of girls to people they have never met and 35% of them report becoming close with someone they met online. 1 in 10 have done this repeatedly.
What’s a Parent To Do?
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed as a parent; to feel like it’s probable, if not inevitable, that your kid is involved in unhealthy online behavior. There are several proactive steps you can take as a parent to counteract the message your teen gets that “There’s nothing really wrong with it. It’s just for fun.”
In general tweens are more risk averse. There is still a built-in caution to things unknown to them. This is why 59% of tweens say they fear being contacted online by someone they do not know. As a parent, you should affirm their conscience and explain why their fear is well-founded. Here are some other things you can do.
Keep your computer in a “family area” and periodically make your presence know there.
- Set boundaries for your family’s online habits such as how long online, what type of sites, etc.
- Monitor their online activities. They need to know you will be doing this and then DO IT.
- Be honest with them about potential dangers online. Even ask them what “other teens” are doing online.
- Prohibit them from meeting in person with someone they met online or from sharing personal information online.
A practical step for you as a parent would be to attend an upcoming presentation of our Wired Generation workshop. You can also download the entire report, Internet Safety: Realistic Strategies and Messages for Kids Taking Online Risks, from the Polly Klaas Foundation or check out their website for incredible tools to use. They are doing some great research and you would do well to take advantage of their findings.