Parents—It’s time for “The Talk” (No, Not That One!)

Child development experts have long advocated for early and frequent discussions with children about sex, advice which is rarely acted upon with comfort or ease. In today’s technological environment, parents are now asked to have similarly serious, although probably not as awkward, discussions about their children’s online behavior.

 

This month the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new study, Parents, Teens, and Online Privacy, that examines the attitudes and practices of parents related to their teens’ behavior online, particularly on social networking sites.

Some of their major findings are—

  • 81% of parents of online teens say they are concerned about what advertisers are learning about their children online.
  • 72% of parents of online teens are concerned about their children’s online interactions with strangers.
  • 69% of parents of online teens worry about the future employment and educational ramifications of their teens’ online behavior.

Much of the press about this report naturally focuses on Facebook, which now, according to their last earnings report, boasts over one billion people using the site every month, a staggering statistics, to say the least. While some parents choose to fight the Facebook phenomenon, most realize that the social network is a fact of their children’s life, and resistance is futile.

Parents vary greatly in their attitudes toward their children’s Facebook experiences. Children under 13 cannot, theoretically, use the site, although the company is exploring options for making it available for younger children.  However, Consumer Reports found that 7 ½ million children under 13 are members. Some kids lie on their own, of course, but what is more disturbing is that many parents help their underage children falsify sign-up information.  Parents also can model irresponsible online behavior by posting photos that violate others’ privacy or using social networking sites to let off steam.

Responsible parents take an active role in their children’s lives on social networks. They work with them through the sign-up process, insist that their children friend them and continuously monitor their postings. James Steyer, author of Talking Back to Facebook: A Common Sense Guide To Raising Kids in the Digital Age, has the following recommendations for parents:

  • Keep your kids off Facebook until they are 15.
  • Don’t give your children smartphones until they are in high school.
  • Let teens know that you will be checking their messages and photos.

While, surveillance is a critical part of effective parenting, it is not enough. Students will soon enough be out of parents’ direct supervision, and they need a foundation of knowledge to help them behave responsibly. 

So parents should have the talk! By the time children are 7, they should know not to share passwords or personal information. And just like that other, scarier talk, as students become more sophisticated, parents need to make those talks frequent and comprehensive—with a good dose of checking up.

And how do educators figure into this process? They can certainly support parents who have a clear strategy for dealing with online privacy. They may have to initiate discussions with students whose parents are either technologically oblivious or foolish. Nevertheless, teachers and other school staff can play an important role in protecting students’ privacy and in teaching them to take control of their online lives.

In December 2015, Peggy Grant joined our extended network of alumni.