November 9, 2011

Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites

Part 4: The Role of Parents in Digital Safekeeping and Advice-Giving

Online safety and parent involvement

Parents in the United States are still the primary gatekeepers and managers of their teens’ internet experience. As discussed earlier in the report, parents are the most often cited source of advice and the biggest influence on teens’ understanding of appropriate and inappropriate digital behavior. Parents are also responsible for keeping their teens safe online and offline and have a number of tools at their disposal to do so.

There are a variety of approaches to engaging with teens on the topic of online safety. Parents can talk to their teens about safe and risky online practices and about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Parents can also answer questions that teens have and give advice in response to questions. They can also take concrete steps to monitor or check up on their teens’ online activities, including the relatively low-tech techniques of checking which websites a teen has visited, viewing his or her social media profiles, or friending him or her on a social network. This monitoring might also include use of parental controls on the computer or cell phone that a teen uses.

In this study, we asked parents (and often teens as well) about whether or not they engaged in the following actions:

  • Talked with you/your child about ways to use the internet and cell phones safely
  • Talked with you/your child about ways to behave toward other people online or on the phone
  • Talked with you/your child about what you/he or she does on the internet
  • Talked with you/your child about what kinds of things should and should not be shared online or on a cell phone
  • Checked to see what information was available online about your child47
  • Checked your social network site profile48
  • Checked which websites you/your child visited
  • Friended your child on social media49
  • Used parental controls or other means of blocking, filtering or monitoring your/your child’s online activities
  • Used parental controls to restrict your/your child’s use of your/his or her cell phone.

In this study, we find that parents are more likely to talk with teens about digital safety and behavior issues, and are somewhat less likely to take a more hands-on approach to restrict or monitor their child. Both parents and teens confirm these tendencies.

The vast majority of parents of online teenagers have had serious conversations with their kids about the do’s and don’ts of online behavior.

We asked both teens and parents about whether parents talk with their children about online safety, and overwhelmingly, both groups said that parents are talking to teens about these issues. From the teen perspective, more than four in five parents engage their kids in conversations about ways to use the internet and cell phones safely, ways to behave toward other people online or on a mobile phone, what kinds of things should and should not be shared online, and what the teen is doing online or on his or her phone. As we often see when we ask questions of both parents and teens, parents are statistically more likely than their teens to say that they talk to their child about various issues. In this case, the discussion topics that parents and teens reported differently include ways to use the internet and cell phone safely, what their child does on the internet or cell phone, and what kind of things should and should not be shared online or on a cell phone.

Parents and teens report that they talk together about online safety

Virtually all parents of online teens (98%) have talked to their children about the way to behave online and cope with problems in sometimes-challenging internet realms. These important conversations do not appear to have fallen on deaf ears; when we asked teens about the conversations they had with their parents, there was considerable overlap in the topics covered. Parents and teens report that they have discussed a wide range of safety and behavioral issues that relate to online life.

94% of parents – and 88% of online teens – report discussing what kinds of things should and should not be shared online.

Fully 94% of parents of online teens say they discuss what kinds of things should and should not be shared online with their child. Latino parents of online teens are somewhat less likely than whites or blacks to say they have done this. Those in households earning more than $50,000 annually are more likely than those in lower-income households to have done it.

When we asked teens about these conversations with parents, younger teens ages 12-13 are somewhat more likely than their older counterparts to report parents discussing what kinds of things should and should not be shared on a cell phone or online (93% vs. 86% of older teens).

According to teens, parents who use social media are more likely to talk with their teen about what kinds of things should and should not be shared online or on a cell phone. Teens report that parents who are friends with their teens on social media are more likely to have these conversations than parents who have not friended their child (92% vs. 79%). Parents who do not use social media are more likely to have teens who report that their parents do not talk about any online behavior or safety issues with them.

Teens who had received sexts were less likely to report parents talking with them about what kinds of things should and should not be shared on a cell phone.

93% of parents and 85% of teens say they have discussed ways to use the internet safely.

Parents of online teens ages 12-13 are more likely than parents of older kids to have had these conversations about how to use the internet safely. Among parents who are friends with their teen on a social network site, 97% report that they have talked about these issues with their child, while 87% of parents who do not use social network sites at all have done the same.

When the question was asked of teens, younger teens 12-13 are more likely to say their parents discuss ways to use the internet and cell phones safely (89% vs. 83% of older teens). Girls are also more likely than boys to report their parents talking with them about digital safety (89% vs. 81% of boys). Younger girls are more likely to have these conversations with their parents than older boys, with the data trend visible even more strongly among younger girls who have a cell phone and use texting.

Teens who think peers are mostly unkind on social network sites and those who have been victims of online cruelty are also more likely to say that their parents have talked with them about ways to use the internet and cell phones safely (94% vs. 83% for those who think peers are unkind vs. kind, and a similar 94% vs. 83% for those who have and have not been victims of online cruelty).

87% of parents have discussed with their teen what she or he has been doing online.

A total of 87% of parents (and a slightly smaller 82% of teens) say that parents have talked with their teen about what she or he has been doing online. Mothers are more likely than fathers to have done this (91% vs. 82%).

When the question is asked of teens, online teens who do not use social network sites are more likely to report having this discussion with their parents than those who use social media. Among social media users, teens who keep their online social media profile private are more likely than teens who have an entirely public profile to report having talked with their parents about what they do online or on their cell phone – 87% of private profile owners say they have talked with their parents about what they do online compared with 73% of those with a public profile. Similarly, those who have experienced online cruelty also are more likely to report that a parent talked with them about what they do on the internet or their phone.

87% of parents have suggested ways to behave toward other people online.

Parents of online girls are more likely than parents of boys to say they have discussed this with their teen. Among teens asked this question, those teens who have received sexually suggestive texts and those who have experienced any type of bullying in the past 12 months – whether online, on the phone, or in-person – areless likely than teens who had not received or experienced these things to say that their parents had talked with them about how to behave online.

Parental monitoring: Non-technical steps are preferred by parents.

Beyond simply talking with teens about online safety and civility, parents and other adult caregivers have other actions and technical tools at their disposal to help maintain their awareness of their child’s online activities.

Overall, parents are more likely to favor less technical steps for monitoring their child’s online behavior. More than three-quarters (77%) of parents say that they have checked to see what websites their child has visited. Two-thirds of parents of online teens have checked to see what information was available online about their child. More than six in ten teens report that they know their parents have checked their social media profile, and 41% of parents of online teens have friended their child on a social network site.

66% of parents of online teens have checked to see what information about their teen is available on the internet.

In the age of widespread use of social network sites by teens, many parents have become vigilant about monitoring their child’s activities online, the information that is available about them, and their comings and goings on social network sites.

Two-thirds of parents (66%) say they have searched for their child’s digital footprints online. Mothers who use the internet (75%) are considerably more likely than fathers (55%) to report checking on their teenage child’s digital reputation, and higher-income parents are more likely to do this than those who live in households with more modest incomes. White and black parents are more likely to report this type of searching than Latino parents, as are parents with greater levels of education.

The oldest girls ages 14-17 are more likely to have their parents search for information about them online than the youngest boys, with 72% of the parents of older girls searching, compared with 55% of the parents of younger boys. Social media and use of mobile phones also relate to parents searching online for information about their child. Teens with cell phones, teens who have sent and received sexts, as well as social media users are all also more likely to have their parents check and see what information is available about them online.

Parents who themselves have experience using social media are more likely to perform these checks. The most active parents checking on their child’s digital material are those who have connected with their children via social network sites.

Parents are becoming more vigilant in monitoring their teen’s online browsing.

The proportion of parents who say they check on the websites their child visits online has risen since 2006. Some 77% of the parents of online teens say they do this, compared with 65% who said they did so in our 2006 survey.

Parents who check on the websites their teen has visited

White parents of online teens (83%) are more likely to check the websites of their browsing teens than black parents (75%) or Latino parents (64%). Parents in higher-income households and those with at least a high school diploma are also more likely than others to check up on their teen’s online travels. The age and gender of the teenager are not associated with this kind of parental vigilance. The parents who have become friends with their teen on social network sites are also more likely to have done this.

Checking the social network site profile of teen50

Nearly two-thirds (61%) of social media-using teens report that their parents have checked their social network site profile. White and black teens were more likely than Latino teens to report that their parents had checked their social media profile. According to teens, parents with a high school education and above were more likely than parents with lower levels of education to check the content of the teen’s online profile. Teens who had directly experienced online cruelty were also a bit more likely than those who had not to have parents who checked their online profile.

39% of parents have friended their teenager on social network sites, but being connected to a child that way does not necessarily ward off problems.

Taking monitoring social media a step further than simply checking their child’s profile or web usage, some 39% of all parents of teens are friends with or otherwise connected to their children via social network sites. That translates into 45% of online parents. We arrive at that overall figure by noting that 87% of parents of teens use the internet. Of them, 67% use social network sites. Of those parents who use social network sites, 84% say they have children who use social network sites. Finally, 80% of those social media-using parents whose teens also use social media have friended or connected with that child via social media.

Interestingly, there are no notable demographic differences among parents who make this kind of online connection with their teenagers and those who do not – either by gender, race, age, or class.

Parents friending kids

Parents who friend their teens on social media are more likely to implement other online safety or parental control measures.

Parents who have friended their teen on social media are more likely to use some forms of parental controls. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of parents who friend their teens use parental controls, while only 31% of parents who are not social media friends with their teens use these tools on their computer. Those who connect with their kids via social network sites are also considerably more likely than others to have checked on the material that is available online about their teenager: 85% of the parents in this group have checked to see what information is available online about their child, compared with 45% of the parents who belong to a social network site but have not friended their teen. However, parents who friend their teen are just as likely as those who do not to say they use parental controls on their child’s cell phone (33% vs. 29%).

Friending parents on social media is associated with an increased likelihood of parent-child conflict over social media.

Friending a teen on social media may have some protective effects, but it is not without its costs, too. Teens whose parents report that they are friends with their child on social network sites are more likely than teens who aren’t friends with their parents to say that they had a problem with their parents because of an experience on social media (18% vs. 5%).

Teens themselves have mixed feelings about being friended by their parents on Facebook. Some teens saw it as a normal part of a parent’s job and were relatively unbothered by it:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL:  [Parents] should just check in every once in a while.
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY:  I friended my mom without even thinking about it. For one thing, she’s never on Facebook. And for another, I don’t really care if she sees what I do. I’m not going out and drinking or whatever with bunches of people I don’t know, so she can look.

Others thought parents friending teens was more of an affront:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL:  My mother is [on Facebook]. She doesn’t have me as a friend. That’s crazy serious.

And some teens explained that other people in their lives like coaches and cousins kept an eye on them through Facebook:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY:  My parents check my wall. Sometimes even coaches check my wall.
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL:  My coach is my [Facebook] friend…he’s like ‘oh, bring the spikes’ or ‘oh our uniforms are here.’ He posts random stuff on my wall. Our whole track team has their own page.

More than half of parents say they use parental controls to manage teens’ internet access; another third use parental controls on teens’ mobile phones.

Parents are also using hardware and software-based tools to monitor their teens’ online activities or block them from accessing certain content. These tools can be standalone software that is purchased or downloaded, or can be built into a browser or a computer operating system. More than half (54%) of parents say they use parental controls or other means of filtering or monitoring their child’s computer-based online activities, while 39% of online teens report that their parents use this type of software or feature in a browser or operating system to manage their teen’s computer-based internet experience.

Types of parental controls

White parents (58%) and black parents (61%) are more likely than Latino parents (35%) to have done this. And the parents who have become friends on social network sites with their children are also more likely to report using parental controls.

Teens with parents who have been to college are also more likely to have parent controls in-use than teens with parents with a high school diploma. In a similar vein, teens from the lowest income households (under $30,000 annually) were much less likely to report use of parental controls than teens from the highest income households (more than $75,000 annually). There are no differences by gender or age in the report of use of parental controls by teens.

About a third of parents use parental controls on their teens’ mobile phone.

Given that so many mobile phones now incorporate easy internet access, and because of the ways that information in the form of text, photos, or videos can be recorded and shared with others on phones, companies have responded to parent and policy maker requests for parental controls for phones on family plans.51 Teens and parents report that parents are taking advantage of these controls for cell phones, with 34% of parents reporting use of parental controls to restrict mobile phone use and 19% of teens reporting their parents’ use of the tools. Two percent of teens do not know if their parents use the controls. Parents of younger teenage boys (those ages 12-13) are the most likely to have restricted their teen’s cell use.

17% of all parents use both forms of parental controls; 41% do not use any parental controls.

Half (54%) of parents whose child uses the internet have used parental controls to restrict access to or content on the internet, and 34% of parents whose child uses a cell phone have used parental controls on their child’s device. When looking at all parents of teens, regardless of their computer or phone ownership or use, 42% of parents use one parental control, either for internet or on a cell phone, and 17% of parents say they use parental controls in both locations. Another 41% of all parents say that they do not use any parental controls. According to a another recent study, the bulk of the parents who do not use parental controls report that they feel they are unnecessary, either because of rules already in place, or because they trust their child to be safe.52

  1. Asked only of parents who use the internet – not asked of teens.
  2. Asked only of teens who use social network sites or Twitter.
  3. Asked only of parents who use social media and had a child who uses social media – not asked of teens.
  4. This question was asked only of teens – about their parents’ activity.
  5. 77% of teens have a cell in this study. The cell phone data from the study will be treated more fully in a later Pew Internet report.
  6. Hart Research (2011) “Who Needs Parental Controls? A Survey of Awareness, Attitudes and Use of Online Parental Controls.” Family Online Safety Institute, Washington, DC. September 14, 2011. http://www.fosi.org/images/stories/research/ fosi_hart_survey-report.pdf