by Leslie Morgan Steiner
How many Facebook “friends” does your child have? Has your kid ever posted a YouTube video? Texted a naked picture of themselves to friends’ phones? How much do we really know about our kids and technology today?
A recent survey of over 1,000 teenagers and 1,000 parents by nonprofit Common Sense Media  revealed a vast disconnect between parents and teens when it comes to Internet usage. Parents think kids start using the Internet unsupervised at far older ages than reality, with nearly 50% of parents reporting their child was 13 or older before starting to use the Internet by themselves – vs over 80% of teenagers who say they took to the Internet before they became teens, according to What Parents Don’t Know About How Their Kids Use Facebook, My Space .
Parents also dramatically underestimate how frequently their children log onto social networking sites. Only 23% of parents report their children check Facebook or similar sites more than once a day, and a mere 4% thought their kids used the sites more than 10 times a day. Over 50% of teenagers, on the other hand, said they check in more than once a day, with 22% reporting going to the sites more than 10 times daily.
Somewhat comfortingly, kids are as clueless as parents. Eighty-two percent of parents check their children’s social media profiles regularly – but barely 25% of kids thought they were being monitored at all. Over 50% of parents know their kids’ Facebook or MySpace passwords, vs. the 14% of teenagers who report parental password knowledge.
It’s a classic teen vs. parent chasm -- despite the fancy technological details, this is a battle parents and teenagers have been duking out for generations. Kids think their parents are in the dark about their daily activities, fantasies and dreams. Parents try to guide their children into the scary world of adult independence, while juggling a fine line between letting go, giving up or sticking our heads in the sand.
Here are some rules and advice from other parents that have helped me manage the digital divide with my kids:
- Don’t think of your kids’ Facebook or other social networking site pages as personal diaries. Over 250 million people use Facebook, so expectations of privacy are null and void.
- Keep all computers in highly trafficked rooms so that you can easily see what your kids are doing online and talk to them about appropriate sites and usage practices.
- Load a key stroke logger onto your computers in case you ever need to capture your children’s passwords.
- Set up your Internet account to send you a message at work when anyone logs onto your home computers; you’ll know when your kids are online and for how long.
- If your child is bullied online, adjust the privacy settings to control shared information and block communication from the bullies (on Facebook is it simple to “Unfriend” users anonymously and most email programs have a Blacklist feature).
- If you can’t or don’t want to do any of these, here’s the one thing every parent and tech expert agrees you must do: talk to your kids about how to use the Internet safely and wisely. Explain in appropriate terms how sexual predators use the Internet to target kids. Talk to them about cases of cyberspace bullying and how wrong it is. Outline for them the long-term consequences of short-term stupidity – how posting a photo that seems funny today could prevent them from getting into college, being chosen for a job, or being accepted into the military down the road. The Internet never forgets.
The problem that vexes me the most – I’m sure my parents felt the same way 30 years ago about me – is that my kids’ know so much more than I do about the world I’m trying to protect them from. They could run circles around me if I tried to discipline or control their Internet usage too harshly, in exactly the same way I convinced my parents that chlorine in the school pool made my eyes bloodshot; my mother and father didn’t know a fraction of my extracurricular activities.
My children’s tech savvy is a GOOD thing – and I have only myself to blame, having encouraged this technological facility since they could move a computer mouse. But I have to face reality that my kids hold most of the leverage here; I can set rules and control the purse strings, but beyond that, we live in the land of mutual trust.
Which I also think is a good thing.