THE BLOG
11/26/2013 10:42 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Kids and Life Online: Are Parents' Fears Warranted?

In today's world the majority of kids, especially those born in the United States and other first-world economies, have never experienced a universe without computers and high-speed Internet connections. As such, texting, posting to social media, online video gaming and other digital interactions are as natural to them as eating, breathing and sleeping. Kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 11.5 hours per day engaged with digital technology. Many of those hours are spent using two or more devices simultaneously. As most kids are awake for only 15 or 16 hours per day, somewhere between 71 and 76 percent of the average child's day is digital. Furthermore, texting is now the primary mode of communication between teens and their friends and family, far surpassing phone calls, emails and even face-to-face interactions.

For the parents of "digital native" children, the fact that their kids spend so much of their lives online is often the source of serious consternation. For starters, they worry they're raising a generation of sallow, unpleasant, disconnected creatures who are fearful of emotions, physical contact and possibly even sunlight. They also wonder if playing Angry Birds for hours on end is sharpening their kids' minds or turning them to mush; if texting 60 times per day is teaching their kids vital communication skills or turning them away from real-world relationships; if Facebook is a healthy venue for social interaction or an overflowing cauldron of bullies and miscreants. Etc. Most of all, though, parents worry that the digital universe is a dangerous place for their children to wander unsupervised.

These current fears are not much different that the qualms of previous parental generations. Think about TV. When television arrived on the scene, many parents openly worried that it would turn their children into mindless zombies. Congressional hearings were surrounding concerns that children would re-enact the violence they saw onscreen, or that parents and kids would stop communicating in favor of easy entertainment. For the most part, these reservations have proved groundless. Television has not been the ruin of the American family or mankind in general, despite the dire predictions. But it has changed our lives forever, for better and worse, as do all new widely accepted technologies. As for that final, gnawing fear that current parents have -- that the online universe is a dangerous place for kids to roam around in -- well, so is the real-world, and kids have been navigating that, more or less unscathed, for centuries.

The Myth of the Digital Helicopter Parent

Sometimes parents think that if they simply keep a watchful eye on their kids' digital activity, everything will be fine. It's a nice theory, but putting it into practice is significantly more difficult than one might think. One obvious issue is the fact that most kids are considerably more tech-savvy than their parents, which makes it relatively easy for them to conceal their digital behavior if they so choose. And apparently a lot of them do so choose. One recent study found that at least 70 percent of teens hide some or even most of their online activity from their parents, doing so in a wide variety of ways, including but not limited to the following:

• Clearing the browser history
• Closing or minimizing the browser when an adult walks in
• Hiding or deleting IMs, texts, videos and the like
• Lying about online activity
• Using a computer that their parents don't check or don't know about
• Using Internet-enabled mobile devices (which typically have no traceable browser history)
• Using privacy settings that prevent their parents from fully accessing their webpages and profiles
• Creating secret emails and social media accounts

So if you can't hover over a child's shoulder and monitor his or her every online move, what can you do? The obvious answer for some parents is to take away the technology. If a kid doesn't have a computer or a smartphone, he or she can't get online, right? Wrong! No matter how hard parents try to keep their kids offline, they can't. Children can access the Internet at school, at the library, at a friend's house, on a borrowed device, on a device they've purchased in secret, etc. Parents who think they can separate their kids from digital devices need to think again, because it's not going to happen. Young people are going to go online and interact, and that's the way it is. Period.

Are Some Fears Legit?

As stated above, parental concerns about young people's online activities are generally overblown, but that doesn't mean digital interactions are always danger-free and never problematic. If that were the case, 70 percent or more of teens wouldn't feel the need to cover their online tracks (an indication they're doing things their parents would not approve of). This begs the question: What are they hiding? Where are the going, and what are they doing online that they'd rather their parents not know about?

Sadly, a surprising number of young people are engaging in age-inappropriate, dangerous and sometimes even illegal activities in the digital universe. Nine percent have hacked someone's email account, 15 percent have hacked someone's social media account, 30 percent have accessed pirated movies or music, and almost half have used the Internet to cheat in school. And frankly, that's just the tip of the online iceberg. Other legitimate concerns include:

Cyberbullying. The deliberate, repeated, hostile use of digital technology (primarily social media) to denigrate, harass and otherwise harm other people is a new and ubiquitous form of childhood torture. About 10 percent of teens admit to cyberbullying, about 25 percent say they've been bullied online. Nearly two-thirds say they've witnessed cyberbullying behavior, even if they weren't the target or a participant.

Porn. In today's world, if a child wants to see pornography, all he or she needs to do is locate a porn site, click a button that says "Yes, I'm 18," and he or she is in. Porn of every ilk imaginable is available anytime, on any device, to anyone who's interested regardless of age, and more often than not, it's free. Almost all teens have seen porn before they turn 18, with the age of first exposure dropping rapidly. Recent research suggests the average age of first exposure is now 11.

Sexting. The incorporation of high-definition cameras into smartphones, laptops, and most other digital devices makes it incredibly easy for young people to impulsively shoot a sexually provocative photo or video and send it to another person or post it online for public consumption. And once the image is sent, the kid who posed for it loses all control over it. Recently, sexted images have redefined what it means to have a bad breakup, as a resentful ex can send or post a former flame's nude pictures pretty much anywhere.

Predators. The vast majority of people online, as is the case in the real world, are well-intentioned. Unfortunately, there are always predators lurking in the shadows, no matter the venue. Sometimes adult predators pose as teens on social media sites and friend finder apps, hoping to lure unsuspecting kids. Sadly, teens don't always understand that many online friends are really just strangers they know nothing about.

The Good Parent Pathway

Knowing that they can't hover over their kids' shoulders 24/7/365, and that they can't keep their kids offline and safe by taking away their digital devices, may cause some parents to feel frustrated and ineffective. This does not, however, mean that parents are powerless when it comes to protecting their children. In fact, there are two major proactive steps that can be taken: 1) talking; and 2) installing parental control software.

Talking

As is the case with just about any aspect of the parent-child relationship, the most effective way to reach and influence a young person is to engage in a series of honest, non-judgmental, open-ended conversations. In other words, the best way to warn kids about stranger danger, cyberbullying, and other potential problems is to talk to them about these things in an even-handed, matter-of-fact way. It is wise to not sensationalize or become overly dramatic, as kids typically don't respond to hysteria (at least not from parents). Such conversations are especially useful when it comes to sex-related issues, and parents should not wait until their kids reach adolescence to have these discussions. In fact, nowadays discussing porn in an age-appropriate manner with preadolescent kids is an absolute necessity. With very young children, parents should explain the basics of what porn is and that it's not OK to look at it, letting kids know that if they encounter it, they should immediately close the browser and call for an adult. With teens, it is more important to let them know that what they see online is not real. Instead, it is a highly objectified fantasy of the sexual act that does not in any way focus on the model's safety (either physical or emotional) or the joys of emotional intimacy.

Parental Control Software

Parents can also install "parental control software" on their kids' Internet enabled devices. Doing so without first discussing it is not recommended, however, as children are likely to resent the unilateral imposition of restrictions. A better approach is to let kids know what you'd like to do and why you'd like to do it, emphasizing that you don't want to limit them or stifle them, you simply want to protect them. You can also let them know that they can either have you peeking over their shoulder every time they go online, or they can have the software. Usually it's a pretty easy decision. You can also include your children in the "settings" process, giving them input about what material should be blocked and/or reported to you, and what material should be freely and privately accessible. When kids are allowed to buy into the process in this way, they are much less likely to try to circumvent the software later on.

The most effective parental control software at this time is generally thought to be Net Nanny, though many other products are also quite good. Regularly updated reviews of parental control software can be found on the Sexual Recovery Institute website, including information about which features are most necessary and why. It is important to remember that even the best parental control software is not perfect. Most kids can find ways to access whatever it is they're looking for -- if not on their own protected devices, then on someone else's. Thus, parental control software should not be viewed as the be-all, end-all in terms of protecting kids online. Rather, it's a useful tool that works best when paired with a series of active, honest and nonjudgmental parent-child conversations.