Study shows how to decrease high risk online behavior by teenagers

In the current Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is a very interesting study entitled “Association of Maltreatment With High-Risk Internet Behaviors and Offline Encounters.”  In it, two researchers from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center examined teenage participation in different online risk behaviors through social media.

The good news is that they found some tangible steps to mitigate risky teenage behavior online.  The bad news is that the solution requires allocation of an increasingly finite resource.

What constitutes risky online behavior?

The study starts with the general observation that 95% of teenagers have access to the internet, and 80% of teenagers use social networks.  If you consider those statistics and then consider that there is a considerable gap between Gen Z use of Facebook compared to Gen Y, it’s pretty clear that mitigating online risk is more complicated than friending your kid on Facebook and monitoring her posts.

The authors of the study define the following as indicators of online risk behavior:

  • viewing of sexual content
  • creating provocative social network profiles
  • receiving online sexual solicitations

One of the additional goals of the study was to determine if the occurrence of offline meetings was influenced by risky online behavior.  It isn’t.  30% of teens meet-up with their online connections in real life, regardless of high-risk online behavior (though the quality of those meetings is influenced by online behavior).

So what are the factors that influence high risk online behavior in teens?

Why monitoring doesn’t work

The study was structured to compare a sampling of maltreated teenagers (defined by an experience of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or physical neglect) with a control group of teenagers not fitting that description.  As you might intuit, maltreated teenagers had a greater proclivity towards online risk behavior.  Despite this, maltreated teens and the control group had the same amount of parental internet monitoring.  This seems to intimate that a software solution won’t protect your kids from online risk.

So what did correlate with diminished risk?  Parenting quality (defined as caregiver presence at mealtimes, before school, after school, and at bedtime and adolescent reports of parental attachment) and Parental (non-technology) monitoring.  It turns out that one of the greatest ways to mitigate online risk is to spend time with your kids and talk with them about these risks.    This seems to be some scientific affirmation for the work of Sherry Turkle and Ellen Bremen to restore real-life sociability to our social networks.

Consider the closing passage from the paper:

“Parents should be encouraged to use tools that go beyond simply installing filtering devices. Such tools include engendering open lines of communication with regard to online and offline practices and targeting problem behaviors that can lead to Internet risk behaviors.”

…and on that note, I’m going to go play with my kids.

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Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.