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Your Teen's Online Life

Smartphones, Tablets, Computers and the Internet

November 08, 2013  |  Falmouth Enterprise

By Dr. Michael Bihari

If you think you know what your teen is up to online? You had better think again! According to a recently published national survey, parents underestimate their child’s exposure to online bullying and sexual content. Noting that parental perceptions can be way off when it comes to what their kids are exposed to while surfing online, the study conducted by researchers from Cornell University “puts an e-spin on the enduring generation gap.” 

The survey, involving 456 parent-child pairs, uncovered some disturbing facts. Although almost one-third of the 10- to 16-year-olds polled said they had been bullied online, just 10 percent of parents reported knowing about it. And, while 15 percent of the kids said they had cyber-bullied someone else, just 5 percent of parents had a clue.

Parents also underestimated how often their child was exposed to online pornography. Nearly 50 percent of the children said they had accidentally been exposed to sexual imagery while about 40 percent of their parents thought that was the case. Additionally, almost 20 percent of the kids said they had been approached by a stranger online while about 10 percent of the parents knew what had occurred.

One of the survey researchers noted that parents need to take responsibility for their children's online behaviors. But he also said that the challenges are not new, "It seems to me that the rates of parental ignorance about bullying and porn use may not be all that different from pre-Internet times. Children have been bullied as long as schools have been around and kids getting hold of pornography is as old as, well, pornography. What's changed is the media -- and the ease with which children are able to access them. So, I'm not all that surprised by these numbers."

Some additional survey findings include:

  • The more permissive the parents, the more likely they are to miss many of the online issues issues faced by their kids.
  • The more a parent believes their own child is less likely to get into trouble online than other kids, the more likely they are to underestimate whether their child has been cyber-bullied and/or approached by a stranger online.
  • Parents whose children said they had trouble talking with them were more likely to underestimate how often strangers were contacting their children online.

The best way to combat this is to talk to your kids about their internet use, and monitor it more often. According to one of the authors of the survey, “No child is above risks, or too smart for the risks. Our study suggests that if you think your child is smarter than others when online, you might be among those who are unaware of what's going on.”

Smartphones: The Teen Gadget of Choice

Smartphones are the current must-have gadget for teens and pre-teens, and their popularity continues to rise along with the compulsion to constantly use them and stay connected. Aside from a few actual phone calls (usually from a parent), teens use their smartphones to access the internet, text, tweet, take photos, post photos, share comments, play games, and listen to music.

For many teens, their smartphone is the first thing they grab in the morning and the last thing they put down at night, not to mention countless interactions with it throughout the day. For some teens, the constant need to stay connected can interfere with family relationships, sleep, and school work. The Drug Free Action Alliance has some good advice.

Be alert for the following signs of smartphone trouble:

  • Your teen feels the “need” to immediately respond to every text and social media update.
  • Your son is constantly checking his phone, even when it is not signaling any messages.
  • Your daughter cannot go to the bathroom or to bed without her phone.
  • Your son becomes agitated or anxious without his phone.
  • Your daughter is losing focus in school and her grades are beginning to slip.

If you are concerned about your teen’s overuse of a smartphone, you will need to have an open discussion with your child and establish some ground rules for cellphone use by all family members. The following might help: 

  • Turn off alert signals and encourage family members to check their phones less frequently.       
  • Make it a rule that all smartphones are turned off and put away while doing homework, during dinner, during family social activities, when friends and family are visiting, and turned off altogether at bedtime.
  • If texting and driving is an issue remove the phone immediately and consider suspending your teen’s driving privileges.

Most important, however, is to help your child better understand their need to constantly check their phone. Is it boredom, loneliness, anxiety, a fear of being out of the loop or some other problem that concerns your child? 

Just like anything else, smartphones, tablets, computers, and the Internet have their pros and cons. Do you know how your kids use this technology?


Internet Safety is a resource you can trust from MedlinePlus.  


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