Parents could be clueless about risky online behavior

Sahara Byrne

Don’t wait until it’s too late to talk to your kid about hazards lurking online. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your child is smarter than others online. And don’t give them too much privacy – all are risk factors for parents’ underestimating risky online behaviors of their children.

That’s the take-home message from a new study, “Peers, Predators, and Porn: Predicting Parental Underestimation of Children’s Risky Online Experiences,” published this month in the Journal of Computer-mediated Communication.

“Trusting parents can be the last to know when their child is struggling socially online,” says Sahara Byrne, a Cornell University associate professor of communication. 

The confidential survey of 454 parents and their children defined risky online behavior as cyberbullying and other hostile interactions with peers, unwanted solicitations from strangers, and exposure to sexual content. The survey asked how well parents and kids were communicating about risky online activities – as well as unsupervised access to home computers.

Before analyzing the responses, the social scientists uncovered some disturbing information: While only 11 percent of parents thought their child had experienced cyberbullying, 30 percent of the children said they had.  More than 15 percent of kids in the study admitted to cyberbullying others – but fewer than 5 percent of parents knew that. Nearly 20 percent of children in the survey reported being approached online by strangers, while only 10 percent of parents thought that might be happening.

There was one area where parents seemed to know what’s up: Roughly 17 percent of children surveyed had been searching for online pornography – and the same percentage of parents suspected as much.

Parents who believe their child is “smarter” than others online or who are not monitoring their computer use are less likely to know that their child has been  cyberbullied, according to the report, which noted: “Moving the computer to a public place in the home seems prudent.”

That’s not so easy, said Byrne. “The more strictly a parent controls access to the Internet, the more likely kids are going to find ways around such rules –like using a friend’s computer or using their mobile phone. An open line of communication from a very young age may be the most reasonable solution to improve parental awareness of online risks, especially in situations where the child is the victim.”

Other authors of the journal report were Mary McCarthy of C+R Research, Daniel Linz of UC Santa Barbara and Sherri Jean Katz and Theodore Lee both of Cornell University.  Research was funded by the National Institutes for Food and Agriculture.

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