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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Parents Have Big Influence on Teens’ Online Behavior

Parents in every new generation must travel unexplored roadways, pressed by the times they live in to contend with new, hard-to-understand forces that influence their children’s lives for better or worse. In the 21st century, one still-foggy roadway leads concerned parents into the new world of communications their teenagers inhabit.

This is a new environment in which cell phone texting and Internet social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace play dominant, sometimes confounding roles. Now comes the welcome news that many parents are proceeding along this roadway more successfully than many observers once thought.

According to a major Pew Research Center study released Nov. 9, parents are bringing their influence to bear on their teenagers’ social-networking and cell phone use. What is more, the study indicates that many teens actually do grasp the risks in acting recklessly or naively when online.

There is heartening news for parents in the Pew Center’s study-report. It says parents “are the most often cited source of advice and the biggest influence on teens’ understanding of appropriate and inappropriate digital behavior.”

Parents’ Concerns: Safety, Bullying, Privacy

Online safety for teens is among areas of concern that today’s parents feel they should address.

A second concern involves online behavior. Parents want to know whether their teens are involved with online bullying (“hurtful harassment”) or sexual acting out (“sexting”), for example. Naturally, parents want to know if their own teens are among those being bullied or exploited.

Privacy is a third concern. Parents want their teens to understand the reasons some information can be shared with others, while other information is more private.

Finally, and more simply, parents simply want to know what their teens are doing with the time they spend online.

The Pew Center conducted its study in focus groups and through a nationally representative survey. Teens and parents alike were asked “whether parents talk with their children about online safety.” Overwhelmingly, both groups answered that parents are doing so.

Parents see pluses and minuses in texting and social networking. The Pew center report, titled “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Networking Sites,” said that parents view the role of these communications tools “as a mixed blessing for their teen-agers: Tech helps their kids to be connected, and it can bring distressing things into their lives.”

While parents generally feel that “the Internet and cell phones help their children connect to others and to information, and that technology helps their children become more independent,” the Pew Center said that parents also express concerns about:

— “The material to which their children are exposed online.”

— “The tone of the social world of the Internet.”

— “How kids’ time spent with digital technology might take away from their face-to-face engagement with others.”

Of course, many parents themselves are numbered among the regular users of social networking websites and cell phone texting. Interestingly enough, the Pew Center reported that parents who “have experience using social media are more likely” than others “to have checked to see what information about their teen is available on the Internet.”

To Friend or Not To Friend

The Pew Center captured my undivided attention with its analysis of social-networking parents who become “friends with or otherwise connected to their children via social network sites.” In monitoring their children’s social-media usage, such parents take a step beyond “simply checking their child’s [online] profile or web usage.”

Parents who friend their teens on social-networking media (in this way becoming able to view their teen’s networking site to one degree or another), are more likely to implement other online safety or parental control measures” related to social-media usage, the Pew Center said. But while friending one’s child “may have some protective effects,” the Pew Center said “it is not without its costs.”

The Pew Center found that teens “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.” Yet, teens friended online by their parents were more likely than others “to say that they had a problem with their parents because of an experience on social media.”

The lengthy Pew report shares some surprising findings. For example, it says:

— Sixty-nine percent of teenagers who use social networking “say their peers are mostly kind to one another on such sites. Still, 88 percent of these teens say they have witnessed people being mean and cruel to another person on the sites, and 15 percent report that they have been the target of mean or cruel behavior.”

— “More than half of online teens have decided not to post something online because they were concerned it might reflect badly on them in the future.”

— “Beyond ‘what’ they post [online], the choices teens make about ‘who’ they share information with via their social media profiles suggest that most teens are cognizant of their online privacy and have made choices to try to protect it.”

For parents, the good news in the Pew study is at least two-pronged. First, conversations with teens about texting and social-networking can prove fruitful. As the Pew Center said, “These conversations do not appear to have fallen on deaf ears.”

Second, parents are not alone when they decide to talk these matters over with their teens. “The vast majority of parents of online teen-agers have had serious conversations with their kids about the dos and don’ts of online behavior,” the Pew Center reported.

It said that most parents of online teens “have talked to their children about the way to behave online and cope with problems in sometimes-challenging Internet realms.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.