A recent study of kids aged 9 to 16-years-old by scientists at the University of Zurich found that nearly 40% had been exposed to sexually explicit online material, 25% had interacted with someone that they didn’t personally know, 7% met someone in real life that they were introduced to on the Internet, and 5% had been “cyberbullied.” Even more troubling than those findings was the revelation that parents significantly underestimate their occurrence.
The study went on to elaborate that parents of kids exposed to these risks oftentimes were oblivious that they were happening. Only 60% of parents thought their kids had seen sexual content online, 45% of parents knew their children had been cyberbullied, and 16% of parents knew that their children met with previous unacquainted persons.
Ironically, Pew published a recent study showing that parents are very concerned about these behaviors. They concluded that a majority of parents are concerned about their children interacting with strangers online and about their online reputation. They found that the two-thirds of parents used social media sites themselves and the percentage of parents monitoring their online behavior increased with larger income and reverse-proportional to age. How parents are allaying these concerns may be telling about this digital dissonance. Last year Lab42 reported that 92% of parents on Facebook are friends with their kids. But as Kathy Savitt and Garry Tan have illuminated, Generation Z has a decidedly different viewpoint about Facebook than most previous generations do.
Recently I did a small study through Survata surveying a cohort of 13-17 year old kids asking the opened ended question, “What social network do you use to communicate with your friends most of the time?” 20% of the boys with a Facebook account use an alternative social network to communicate with their friends. 50% of the girls with a Facebook account used a different social network to communicate with their friends. In other words, Facebook may not be the hub of social activity for kids that it is for adults.
One other place that parents go to check up on their children’s social activity is search (61% of parents have done this according to Pew). This is ironic given how little information Google has about major social networks and how easy it is to falsify or abbreviate a user-name. For anyone presuming that Gen Z are technical novices, please let me send you a video of my one-year navigating an iPhone like he’s had one his entire life (of course he has).
The new “talk”
I remember vividly when my parents gave me the “birds and bees” talk. I was given a nicely illustrated book to read and was given a question and answer opportunity afterwards. It was awkward and more or less effective. The idea behind having the sex talk with a child isn’t necessarily to cover every detail, but to give them an idea of the mechanism and concerns surrounding sex so that they will make informed decisions about it.
When it comes to social media and Internet usage, it appears that many parents are relying on a monitoring tactic to subvert online threats to their children. The problem is that any kid could circumvent monitoring and many are. I wonder if over-reliance on monitoring is giving parents a false security about how their kids are behaving online? Will more tech-savvy parents begin to have “the (tech) talk” with their kids, and will the quality of their online activity improve as a result? Are parents adequately equipping their children to make sound decisions about online content and relationships?
What do you think? Are parents relying on monitoring to mitigate online risk for their kids? What are the impact of emerging social networks and unprecedented tech savvy in this “Generation Z?” And how white is my hair going to be in ten years when my daughter is a teenager?