Parents of online teenagers generally clueless

June 26, 2012

Parents of online teenagers generally cluelessThere’s been a dramatic rise in the proportion of teenagers who mislead or befuddle parents about their online behavior. Around seven in ten teens fit this category in a newly-published survey, compared with 45 percent in 2010.

Both surveys come from security firm McAfee, which interviewed around a thousand parents and a thousand teenagers. One big limitation is that the teenagers ranged from 13 to 17, which is quite the difference when it comes to expectations of personal privacy and responsibility online.

Putting together the various figures from the responses, it seems you can group parents and teens into three groups. Around 30 percent of teens are (or claim to be) entirely honest with their parents about what they do online. About 50 percent either lie or keep quiet, but the parents are well aware they have no clue what the kids are really up to. And in 20 percent of cases, the parents think they know what’s going on, but really don’t.

Taken as a whole, parents appear to be a little naive. On average parents believe teenagers spend two hours a day online, while the teens report the actual figure is closer to five. Of course, that could be a matter of differing definitions.

One figure that may attract the wrong kind of attention is the revelation that black parents are least likely to monitor online behavior. This could well be because black households are proportionally more likely to have cellphones as their primary or sole means of getting online, with teens either using the Internet on a tiny screen or leaving the home to access it.

As for how teens evade attempts at monitoring, name a tactic and there are far more kids doing it than parents who know what they are up to. The biggest disparities are in simply clearing the browser history (17.5 percent of parents think their kids do it, 53.3 percent actually do) and using private browsing modes (3.7 percent of parents think their kids do it, 19.5 percent actually do.)

These figures do raise some questions about the reliability of the survey however. There’s a suggestion that while nearly half of teens successfully evade detection by simply minimizing browser windows when their parents enter the room, just one in six parents are aware of such a tactic.

Given that most parents of today’s teens are likely to be in their thirties or forties and well familiar with the web, it seems impossible to believe that they can’t even figure out that kids might do this. That raises the intriguing possibility that this all comes down to game theory: simply minimizing a window is such an obvious evasion tactic that perhaps parents assume kids won’t be dumb enough to use it and thus there’s no point checking, but the kids have figured this out and thus it works.

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