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For Parents: Kids and Computers

Widespread use of information technology by young people is here to stay.

A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation — Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds — reveals that 8- to 18-year-olds spend 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) using entertainment media across a typical day.  When considering “media multitasking” (using more than one medium at a time), youth are packing in 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) of media into those 7½ hours. When a 2004 study by the same foundation found that youth spent 6:21 hours on entertainment media, with multitasking resulting in 8:33 in a single day, researchers suggested that youth could not fit any more entertainment media into their daily lives.  They were wrong.  Some other highlights from the study are:

  • 66% of 8- to 18-year-olds own cell phones (up from 39% in 2004).
  • 76% own iPods and other MP3 players (up from 18% in 2004).
  • 28% have rules about how much time they can spend watching TV.
  • 30% have rules about playing video games.
  • 36% have rules on computer use.
  • Those children with media-use rules consume nearly 3 hours less media per day (2:52) than those with no rules.
  • 47% of heavy media users say they usually get fair or poor grades (mostly Cs or lower) compared to 23% of light users.
  • TV watching still tops the list for entertaining media consumption (4:29).  TV programming has become even more accessible with the addition of video streaming to computers, iPods and cell phones.
  • TV consumption is followed by music/audio (2:31), computers (1:29), video games (1:13), print (:38) and movies (:25) a day.
  • Online activities include social networking (:22), playing games (:17) and visiting video sites like YouTube (:15) per day.
  • 74% of all 7th-12th graders say they have a profile on a social networking site.
  • Media consumption increases substantially at the 11-14 year-old age group.
  • 7th-12th graders report spending an average of 1:35 a day sending or receiving texts (time spent texting is not counted as entertainment media in this study).

The Kaiser Family Foundation news release provides a summary of the results: Daily Media Use Among Children And Teens Up Dramatically From Five Years Ago.

Source: Rideout, V. J., U. G. Foehr, and D. F. Roberts. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds.

When parents hear about online dangers, some may want to either ignore the problems or turn off their computers. And when children face a potential threat online, they would often rather deal with the threat on their own than ask for help from a parent or other trusted adult who may take the computer or cell phone away.

According to the 2006 Teen Internet Safety Survey conducted by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Cox Communications, 33 percent of 13- to 17-year olds reported that their parents or guardians know “very little” or “nothing” about what they do on the Internet.

When it comes to Internet safety, some basic rules apply.

Don’t talk to strangers, especially about sex:

  • 32% of online teens have been contacted online by a complete stranger
  • Of teens who have been contacted, 23% say they were made scared or uncomfortable by the stranger contact
  • 7% of online teens experienced disturbing stranger contact
  • 4% of youth received aggressive online sexual solicitation where the solicitor tried to make offline contact
  • 4% faced solicitation of pictures

Don’t go into certain virtual neighborhoods:

  • 25% of youth who use the Internet regularly had one or more unwanted exposures to sexual pictures while online in the past year:
    • 73% came during surfing
    • 27% came via email or IM

Interpreting the Statistics

While the statistics above may be disturbing, it is important to understand that sexual solicitations are not necessarily from “online predators.”  These solicitations were unwanted online requests to young people to talk about sex, answer personal questions about sex, or do something sexual. Many could have been from other youth.  In most cases, youth did not actually know the ages of solicitors. When they believed they knew, they said about half were other youth.

Most sexual solicitations are not necessarily devious or intended to lure. Most were limited to brief online comments or questions in chatrooms or instant messages. Many were simply rude, vulgar comments like, “What’s your bra size?”

Most recipients did not view the solicitations as serious or threatening.  More than 75% were not frightened or upset by what happened.

Importantly, most youth handle unwanted solicitations appropriately by blocking or ignoring solicitors, leaving sites, or telling solicitors to stop.  Very few youth are sexually victimized by someone they meet online.

Danger Signs

[blockquote]“The Internet is not the primary means that predators are using to contact and communicate with child and teen victims.”[/blockquote]

Attempts to contact children offline – Researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center (2007) estimate that some of the more serious types of sexual solicitations are more appropriately considered “threatening or dangerous situations that youth encounter online.”  The 4% of youth who receive “aggressive” sexual solicitations include attempts to contact the youth offline. These are the episodes most likely to result in actual victimizations. (About one‐quarter of these aggressive solicitations came from people the youth knew in person, mostly other youth.)

As is the case with any form of sexual abuse, most often the victim “knows” the perpetrator.  According to Nancy Willard (2009) of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use:

“The Internet is not the primary means that predators are using to contact and communicate with child and teen victims.”

Willard suggests that we need to be more concerned about family and acquaintance abusers who are using interactive technologies to sexually abuse children (e.g., creating child pornography).

Chatrooms – Willard also reports that when sexual solicitations do happen, they most often occur in chatrooms, not on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.  Chatrooms are associated with risky behavior as many chat spaces focus specifically on sex, providing a space for people with common interests to communicate.  This is not a space for children and youth.  Rather, Willard suggests that children should be encouraged to engage on social networking sites as they have proved to be safe spaces given the diligent efforts to remove registered sex offenders and inappropriate content.


Beware: Chatting is Back

Chat rooms fell out of fashion with kids a few years ago; however two new sites are bringing it back.  Omegle.com is a site that connects strangers in one-on-one chat sessions.  It is anonymous and no one is required to reveal personal information; yet many do.  Anything goes on this site.  It is not a place for children.
ChatRoulette is the new social networking thrill.  This site allows for video chatting with an endless stream of random strangers dropping in.  As soon as you sign up, the site automatically links up to your webcam.  (Even if you don’t have a webcam, you can still connect and view others.)  Once you click “start” you are connected with a total stranger.  You can either instant message or talk or hit next to randomly see who else is out there.  The user on the other end can do the same.  You never know and can’t control who you will see and talk to next. This is definitely not a site for children.  Check out CommonSense Media for more information.
Talk to your kids about the dangers of chatting.[/blockquote]

Youth seeking sexual relationships – Researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center (2008) (PDF) are also finding that some youth are using the Internet to seek sexual relationships with adults (see Sexting statistics below).  Youth who engage in this risky behavior may include those with histories of sexual abuse, sexual orientation concerns and patterns of off- and online risk taking.† These youth require developmentally appropriate prevention strategies.

Sexting – Sexting is an extension of the sex-risk behavior described above.  In 2008, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com surveyed teens to better understand the intersection between sex and cyberspace. The results included:

  • 22% of teen girls and 18% of teen boys have sent/posted nude or seminude pictures of themselves
  • 37% of teen girls and 40% of teen boys say they sent or posted sexually suggestive messages
  • 48% of teens say they have received sexually suggestive messages
  • 71% of teen girls and 67% of teen boys who have sent or posted sexually suggestive content say they have sent/posted this content to a boyfriend/girlfriend
  • 21% of teen girls and 39% of teen boys say they have sent such content to someone they wanted to date or “hook up” with
  • 15% of teens who have sent or posted nude/semi-nude images of themselves say they have done so to someone they only knew online
  • 75% of teens say sending sexually suggestive content “can have serious negative consequences”

Youth who engage in sex-risk behavior need to be taught awareness and avoidance skills, and those who may engage in risky behavior with adults need to understand the pitfalls of sexual relationships with adults and their criminal nature.  The solution is not to restrict access to the technology or Internet, but for parents to learn more about the potential problems and then teach their children how to make smart, safe and responsible choices while online.

Staying Connected

Adults typically think of technology as a tool for working, managing money, shopping, finding information and communicating. Many adults, especially those who spend their days working at a computer, welcome the opportunity to occasionally get away from technology.

In contrast, young people often report that technology is central to entertainment and maintaining friendships. Some young people believe they would lose many of their social contacts or friendships if they could not connect to the digital world. After school, children and teenagers often head home and log on to the Internet to stay connected with their friends, especially if they don’t have the freedom afforded by a driver’s license. And they may stay connected for most of the evening.


Beware of the Buzz

Google’s new social networking tool, Buzz may put children in danger.  According to the Terms of Agreement, Google, like Facebook, does not allow anyone under the age of 13 to set-up an account, and users must enter their birth dates.  If children are using their parent’s Gmail account, they can enable Buzz and have full access to the public social networking site.  Buzz does not have any parental controls.  If your child is using Buzz, be sure that you help them establish privacy settings and assure that all of their friends on the network do the same.   Otherwise, if not set to private, anyone could interact with your child.  Disabling Buzz may be the best option if users are under the age of 13.

For many teens, social networking on web pages is an important part of their lives. According to the 2007 Teen Internet Safety Survey:

  • 71% of online teens ages 13-17 have created a personal profile on a social networking site like MySpace, Friendster or Xanga. These sites allow children to create their own websites and share their personal information with anyone, anywhere in the world. Creating a profile is a way young people can experiment with their identities.
  • 58% of teens post information about where they live
  • 70% of females and 58% of males post personal photos or videos of themselves
  • 8% post their cell phone numbers online

Parents need to teach their children that:

  • they should never share personal information like their actual name, age, email address, physical address, city, phone number, school name or names of family members and friends in their profiles.
  • if they (or someone else) uploads photos or information to the Internet, that information can never be retrieved or controlled.
  • once something is on the Internet, anyone can access it. Anyone can download it, resend it, print it and even alter it to look like something it is not.

Restricting Access…Why it Doesn’t Work

Young people’s online lives are very important to them. But teens are not likely to be open about a potential cyber threat if they feel their parents’ reaction could put an end to their computer access and communication. From a young person’s perspective, that punishment poses a far greater threat to his or her social life than a cyber predator poses. That’s one reason education and open communication about computer use between you and your child are so important.

Preventing a child from accessing the Internet by taking away computer privileges at home or school does not solve the problem. It may potentially create even greater problems if your child finds other ways to access the Internet that you don’t know about.

Downloading filtering software on the computer a child uses at home isn’t enough. Children can easily access the Internet in other ways and most filtering software can be defeated.

Young people can go online with a cell phone or gaming console like Sony PlayStation, Nintendo or handheld gaming devices, or at:

  • coffee shops and restaurants with Internet access
  • hotels with Internet access
  • a neighbor’s house with wireless Internet access
  • schools
  • public libraries
  • friends’ houses

Parents should also remember that accidents happen. If you find inappropriate material on your computer and there is no repeated pattern, give your child the benefit of the doubt. This will show trust and help keep communication open. Remember that threatening to take a computer away from a child is one of the biggest reasons children do not report incidents to their parents in the first place. Assess the threat and react appropriately.

Some parents may choose to use a “keylogger” to monitor their children’s computer use. Keyloggers, which can be either software programs or a piece of hardware, allow you to track all activity that occurs on a particular computer. Once installed, keyloggers are designed to collect information about what was typed on that machine, chatroom logs and screen images (known as screen shots). Keylogger software also can allow the installer to receive an email when a certain word is typed on that computer – all while being virtually invisible to other computer users.

While this can be an effective way to gain information, keyloggers raise many questions about privacy and potential identity theft. Since children typically use multiple computers and can access websites, instant messaging and chat rooms with their cell phones, the effectiveness of keylogger programs is limited. Ultimately, while keylogger tools may be considered to help protect children, they are no substitute for trust and open communication between parents and teens, or for teaching your children responsible, safe behavior on the Internet.

What’s Online About Your Family

Have you “Googled” yourself lately? Just because you haven’t put something about yourself online does not mean someone else hasn’t.

If you have been in the news, own property or have a published phone number, or if someone simply wanted to upload information about you, personal information about you and your family is likely posted to the Internet.

To see what is out there about you or your children, here are some of the places to check:

  • Online profiles that people create to access blogs, chat rooms and instant messaging accounts. Often these are available for anyone on the Internet to review. Be sure to check the privacy policies before willingly providing your personal information.
  • Social networking sites where you or anyone else can create a personal webpage about anyone, including you, and then share whatever is posted with the world. Examples include MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, hi5, Xanga and orkut. You might be able to request that your personal information be taken down from a website, but there is no guarantee that someone has not already seen it and even saved the information.
  • Search engines such as Google and Yahoo, or Icerocket, which specializes in blog searches. Since someone can always create multiple social networking site accounts, consider running a search through some of them by using a search engine. You can find pictures of yourself online if the image file includes your name. Conduct an image search on Google using your name and see what comes up.
  • Local, state or federal government websites that provide access to public information. Examples include mt.gov online services, ZABASEARCH.com and WhitePages.com.
  • Online background check services.
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