Do you think your teen talks to you about online risk?

Daughter looking a phone and ignoring her mother

My last post detailed research presented last year by Dr. Wisniewski . Today’s post will highlight research she presented just a week or two ago, the end of February, at the CSCW conference. Dr. Wisniewski and her colleagues continue to generate wonderful research that has real time applicability to parenting in the digital age.

Very little is known from the research community about whether teens actually communicate the risk they experience online with parents. Each parent may have their own thoughts about their own child’s exposure to risk and communication of that exposure but there is no way to really know the truth.

In the research presented last week, Dr. Wisniewski had 68 teen-parent pairs fill out weekly online diaries that cataloged the risks the teen experience online, whether the teen intended the risk to occur and how they felt about the incident. The parents were also asked to log incidents of risk that child came to them to disclose the risk encounter. The researchers then looked to see how many “matched” reports existed. A matched report was a risk diary entry made both by the parent and the teen.

First, let’s talk about risk. What types of risk does a teen face online? For the sake of this research, the risks were broken down into four categories. 1) information breaches – these are situations in which a teens personal information or photo is being used or shared online without their permission. 2) Online Harassment – This is cyberbullying or negative online interactions that make the teen feel unsafe, threatened or embarrassed. 3) Sexual Solicitations – these are sexting or requests for sexual content that can come from friends, acquaintances or strangers. 4) Exposure to Explicit Content is either voluntary or accidental viewing of pornography or violent content online.

So, what did the researchers find? Well, in a nutshell, not much matching. They found that only 15% of risk reports were matched, meaning that most of the time, parents and teens were very out of synch on what they considered risk or what they reported.

Parents reported much less risk than their children did. Many teens did not share exposure to explicit content or information breaches with their parents. These tend to be viewed as low risk by teens and it is hypothesized that therefore the information is not shared with parents. While parents tended to report low risk issues, teens reported more medium level risks.

Another interesting finding from the study involves what the researchers called Risk Agency. Basically, this looked at whether anyone was “at fault.” Was a risk accidental or intentional? Teens more frequently shared that risk exposure was accidental and parents tended to assume that their children were either victims or intended to engage in risk. Parents tended to assume that things that were accidentally viewed by their children were intentional.

In my work with parents, I often stress communication. This study also looked at parent teen communication. In most cases, teens did NOT tell their parents about risk they experienced online. The bigger problem is that the parents THOUGHT that their teens were talking to them when they were not. When teens did talk to parents, it was to ask them for help or when they were shocked by content they had seen. Another main reason why teens did not tell parents about risk exposure was the fear that the parent would react negatively. They didn’t want to be punished for things that were not their fault. Teens also did not want to hear a lecture from their parents that involved reprimand. Teens tended to find the reactions of parents: grounding, taking away phones, disallowing social media, etc. to be too harsh.

What are the practical take aways from this study? First, teens only tell their parents about 28% of the risk they encounter online. Parents under estimate risk and over estimate how much their child tells them. Teens tend to think many online risk situations are “no big deal.” Teens also find parents as lecturing, reactive and judgmental about risk they do share.

The study and clinical practice suggest that parents need to work hard to improve their communication with their teen about online activity, risk and resilience. If a parent can share discussions with their child about how to manage online risk before it happens in a nonjudgmental, non-lecturing manner, they will likely increase the chances of their teen talking to them about their online experiences. If parents want to know what is going on in their teens online world, they need to specifically ask what is going on and not assume that their child will tell them.

For more information on Dr. Weeks please see our company website. You can find The New Age of Sex Education: How to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography in the digital age on amazon.

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