November 9, 2011

Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites

Part 5: Parents and Online Social Spaces: Tech tool ownership and attitudes towards social media

Parents see the internet and cell phones’ role as a mixed blessing for their teenagers: Tech helps their kids to be connected and it can bring distressing things into their lives.

In our survey, we asked parents about their feelings about a series of positive and negative impacts of digital technology. Generally, people said the internet and cell phones help their children connect to others and to information, and that technology helps their children become more independent. At the same time, they generally express concerns about the material to which their children are exposed online, the tone of the social world of the internet, and how kids’ time spent with digital technology might take away from their face-to-face engagement with others. Overall, parental views tilted a bit toward the positive assertions, but there was still plenty of angst in their answers.

There were no overall demographic trends to the answers. As a rule, all kinds of people expressed satisfaction and concern in equal measure.

Still, there were a few things to note in survey answers to these questions about parental attitudes:

  • Relative to Latinos, whites were more likely to feel that technology helps their child connect to friends and information. Parents with a college degree or some college experience, as well as those in higher-income households (those earning $75,000 or above) were also more likely to see positive benefits of this nature. At the same time, those same groups of parents were more likely to express concern that digital technology exposed their kids to inappropriate content.
  • The parents of teens who use Facebook were more likely than others to say that digital technology did a good job connecting their kids to family and friends, to say that the technology helped their child be independent, and that it helped connect their child to information.
  • The parents of girls and teens who are frequent users of any social network site were more likely than others to worry about the impact of digital technology on the way teens in general treat each other online or on their phones.

Parents' feelings about the impact of the internet and cell phones

13% of parents of online teens say they know their child has been bothered by something that happened or something they saw online.

Despite those concerns, a much smaller portion of teens have actually had problems online that their parents know about. Some 13% of parents of online teens say their child has experienced a problem online either in something that happened or something they saw online.

There are no demographic differences tied to these reports. Parents of girls and boys, parents of younger and older teens, parents of different races and ethnic groups, parents in relatively well-off and relatively poor households, parents in all kinds of communities are equally as likely to say their child has had a bad experience online. Internet-using parents are more likely than non-users to say their child has had some difficulty (14% vs. 5%).

Most strikingly, the parents who know their teenager has been bothered by something that happened online are also the most likely to talk with their teens about online safety strategies.

Parental discussions with their online teens

More heartening, among parents who say their child has been bothered by something online in the past year, none of their children reported any greater likelihood of having negative or positive experiences on social media.

The parents of teenagers are steeped in technology and are increasingly involved with their kids’ lives in online environments.

The vast majority of parents of online teens have had serious conversations with their kids about online life, the problems associated with it, and ways to navigate those spaces. A majority of parents monitor their kids’ online behavior. Relatively high numbers of parents have become friends with their offspring on social network sites.

This is all spurred by the fact that families are saturated with technology. Tech adoption and tech-usage rates by teens’ parents are higher than the general population:

  • 91% of parents of children ages 12-17 own cell phones, and 86% of those cell owners send and receive text messages. The most recent Pew Internet Project survey of the general population in August showed that 84% of all adults have cell phones and 76% of them exchange text messages.
  • 87% of parents of teens are internet users (vs. 78% of those in the overall adult population) and 82% have broadband connections at home (vs. 62% of those in the overall population).
  • 86% of parents of teens own laptops or desktops, compared with 76% of those in the overall adult population.

Online parents are just as likely as the general population of adult internet users to use social network sites; 67% of online parents of teens use social network sites like Facebook or LinkedIn, compared with 64% of all adult internet users.

Even though there is widespread adoption and use of technology among parents, there is some variance by class, age, and race to some aspects of technology use. Generally, families that are relatively well off and where the parent has a high level of education are more likely than others to own a cell phone, own a computer, and use the internet. In addition, white parents of teenagers are more likely than minority parents to own a cell phone or a computer and to use the internet. At the same time, once a parent owns a cell or uses the internet, she is just as likely as other parents to be a text message user and a participant on a social network site.