A Digital Gap Between Kids and Parents


A new study examining the online habits and interests of preteens, teens, and young adults suggests that many parents are not only unaware of how their kids are behaving in the digital domain, they are increasingly throwing in the towel when it comes to tracking and enforcement. Meanwhile, kids appear to be exploiting their parents’ frustration while simultaneously becoming more adept at hiding what they do online.

The study, which bears the marketing-conscious title Digital Deception: Exploring the Online Disconnect between Parents and Kids, was conducted by the digital security company McAfee, a subsidiary of Intel Corporation. The researchers for McAfee conducted 2,474 online interviews in the U.S. among 1,173 youth ages 10-23 and 1,301 parents with offspring in that age range.

In what is perhaps the most stunning finding, 62% of parents say they don’t think their children can get into serious trouble online. Combine that misconception with the fact that eight out of ten parents have no idea how to find out what their children are doing online and you have a recipe for cultural calamity. The majority of parents (74%) freely admitted to the surveyors that they do not feel up to the task of monitoring their kids. Their main excuse: They don’t have the technical know-how, time or energy to keep up with their kids’ online activity. Instead, they hope for the best.

While 39% of parents try to monitor their children’s online behavior with parental controls, tech savvy teens take advantage of their parents’ limited tech acumen and bypass the surveillance. Almost 70% of the kids say they are effective at hiding their online behavior from their parents. Of the 41% of tweens that have passwords set for mobile apps by their parents, 92% of them know the passwords. More than half (60%) of tweens’ parents think they do not know the passwords.

  • More than 57% of 13-23 year-olds use the Internet to search sexual topics. Only 13% of parents believe they do.
  • 48% of 13-23 year-olds have looked up a website or video that their parents would disapprove of. Only 17% of parents are aware of these searches.

Are parents being grossly irresponsible? They don’t think so. Seventy-one percent of parents say they have had conversations with their children about proper online behavior. Only 44% of kids agree.

Deception starts early. Among kids ages 10-12, the study found that 85% have Facebook accounts, even though the minimum age is 13.  That fact is not surprising because many parents knowingly permit it. More disturbing are the 58% of preteens who claim to be savvy about hiding what they do online from their parents. Almost 1 in 4 preteens know how to clear their browser cache or use incognito browsing to hide their activity from their parents.

Ed. Note:

According to the study, more than half of kids ages 10-17 admit they have posted “risky” comments or pictures online. Nearly one third (29%) of 13-23 year-olds have had a negative experience when sharing revealing photos. More than a quarter (27%) of wanna-be adults 18-23 say they have posted photos while intoxicated, knowing full well they might  sabotage future career opportunities. 

Would they still take those risks if they knew their parents were monitoring them? 46% of kids in the study say no, they would not. Most of the remaining 54% are probably lying — researchers neglected to ask that question.

From the teenage perspective, parents have always been a little, or a lot, clueless. Teenage humans frequently find it necessary to deceive their parents when they wish to do or see things their parents would not condone. Keeping their parents in the dark about their tastes and behaviors is one way kids assert control over their own lives. While this sitcom dynamic can have serious consequences if kids are engaged in dangerous behaviors, in most cases the outcome is a series of lessons learned, punctuated by OMGs and LOLs. It all falls under the heading of growing up.

So, is the situation reflected in the McAfee study just a natural pattern repeating itself? Or is something else going on?

Studies like this raise new questions, ones that society hasn’t had to ask before: How is growing up different in the Digital Age? Are kids more vulnerable now that they can connect, consume and share in a borderless world? Are the stakes higher in an always-on environment? Is the potential for personal disaster elevated by electronics? Are parents falling behind in the eternal struggle between parental oversight and youthful deception? Are kids gaining an unhealthy advantage in the growing up game aided by apps and access? Is technology causing Digital Age parents to cry uncle?

If the answer is yes to all those questions, at least part of the solution has to be literacy 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, and so on.

The challenge of child-rearing has always been about guiding kids toward making the connection between actions and consequences. Sound judgement and critical thinking take time to develop. Parental authority and respect are a primary component of the maturation process.

As most conscious parents understand, parental authority is not bestowed by just being a parent. It comes from garnering respect by demonstrating competency and credibility in the eyes of one’s kids. These days that means knowing enough about the technology and the online world to present a credible face of authority. Parents need to be loving and supportive, but they also need to keep their kids guessing: Are they onto me?

Digital Age parents can’t look to their own parents for lessons. New technologies come along every day and with them new threats to children of all ages. One way or another, parents have to keep up. They have to stay in sync.

Where the future of society is concerned, parental digital literacy just might be the most urgent literacy of them all. 



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