Parental Monitoring

I was struck by the findings of this research presented at the NetSafe Conference in New Zealand this week. According to a survey done by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), 70% of parents monitor their teens texts and 84% monitor their online usage (to what extent, I don’t know). Despite this high level of investigation (prying?), few teens were aware their parents were doing it — 70% of the teens didn’t know their phones were being monitored and only 39% knew that their internet use was being investigated by their parents.

Time for disclosure here: I am not a parent. I work with youth and young adults as a small part of my job, but that’s it. That said, here is what I think of these research findings:

The disconnect between parental “spying” and teen awareness of it, to me, is disconcerting. I remember that my parents would rifle through my backpack to get a sense of “what was going on” when I was in high school (this was B.I. — before internet). I had closed up as several teens do and I believe they were simply desperate for information. But as soon as I caught on to what they were doing, it only sent me further underground. I learned to better hide my secrets — my grades, my crushes, my hopes, fears, and desires. I felt betrayed and vowed not to tell them anything about what was going on with me and how I was feeling.

I am not saying my experience represents that of a typical youth today, but I do believe that there are some out there that are a lot like I was then. And, I admit, I needed help from a trusted adult back then. Finding out I was being spied on did not help that situation. So, I wonder: How would many of these young people react to discovering that their parents are invading their privacy without their knowledge?

I know some parents believe they have a “right” to do what they are doing, and are more often than not monitoring digital behavior out of love and concern for their children. I still don’t think it makes it right. And I do believe that for those young people for which there is something to be concerned, such actions could backfire big time. Research shows that youth who are struggling in the offline world are more likely to engage in risky online behaviors. Making the world seem less safe for them through spying seems that it could make matters even worse.

My hope is that parents and youth can somehow engage in more open dialogue. Easy to say, and an enormous challenge to actually do. Building the trust for this sort of conversation takes a lot of time and effort from all parties, but I believe it is worth it in the end. I know I would have benefited from this approach much more than I would have from backpack snooping. My relationship with my parents would have as well.

Same news, different story

A recent presentation at the American Public Health Association Conference reported the differences in sexual behavior between youth that have smart phones versus less sophisticated ones. in a nutshell, of the teens (from LA) surveyed, those with smartphones were more likely to have sex, have sex without a condom, meet others online for sex, and be sexually solicited than teens without Internet access on their phones,

Although most press coverage consisted of the same content, the headlines varied greatly. The US News and World Report simply stated Smartphones linked to sexual activity in teens: Dull, but to the point and accurate. Kudos as well to the New York Daily News (yes, you read that right — they did good here) for having a slightly more sensational headline, but still getting the facts right:

Teens with Smartphones are more likely to be solicited for sex via the internet

Less responsible headlines included

Lead researcher Eric Rice of USC School of Social Work did a great job of representing his work accurately and was lucky enough to be quoted well in the articles at least. I continue to hope for a day when teen sexuality is NOT used to grab attention by being portrayed in a scandalous, irresponsible manner. If we want them to be mature about their sexual decision making, the least us adults could do is set a good example for them.

Thoughtful, yet inaccurate, article

Textual Misconduct: What to do about teens and their dumb naked photos of themselves, by Dahlia Lithwick and featured both on Slate and in Newsweek, addresses the now extremely hot topic of sexting and child pornography. Like many others including myself, she recommends that minors who send sexually explicit photos of themselves NOT be charged with child pornography distribution and their hapless friends should not be guilty of receiving and possessing it. Yet, while researching for this piece, Lithwick discovered that when such cases do result in criminal charges “prosecutors have charged the senders of smutty photos, the recipients of smutty photos, those who save the smutty photos, and [/or] the hapless forwarders of smutty photos” — it just depends on the jurisdiction! Such inconsistencies surely provide an example of how the law is not really equipped to handle this phenomenon.

Despite my overall affinity towards this article, I did want to point out a sensationalizing misrepresentation of the recent survey conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancyaccording to “Textual Misconduct,” this survey has “one teen in five reporting he or she has sent or posted naked photos of himself or herself.” In actuality, the survey reports that one in five teens have posted a “nude or semi-nude [emphasis added] pictures or videos of themselves. Big difference, because in the latter example, a boy would say “yes” to this question if he has a picture of himself shirtless at the beach — a gal might say yes if she has posted a photo of her scantily clad (but not naked). These latter examples of pictures may be problematic, but they do not qualify as child pornography. And thus, the law would not be applicable.

While I hope to see more intelligent dialogue on this topic, I really hope it will be accurate.

Teens share risky photos online

Finally! Researchers are starting to catch on to what teens are doing online! The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released its findings on the sharing of photos online and reveal that 22 percent of all teen girls say they have electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude images of themselves.

Although not surprising, this next statistic is the one that should make teens think: One-third of teen boys and one-quarter of teen girls say they have had nude/semi-nude images — originally meant to be private — shared with them. The message? If you send it out, others will see it — and you can’t control who those others are.

It’s hard for a teen to imagine that their situation is just like any other. They want to believe that they can trust their friends and/or partners to not pass on things meant for their eyes only. But the reality is, is that teens like to be a part of things — and those things sometimes include gossip and what they consider “fun.” Just as a teen may be all-too-quick to think it’s a good idea to flash for the camera, another teen sees only the good in passing that photo onto others as they hastily hit the “forward” button.

Yet another call for electronic media literacy.

You can read the full report Sex and Tech here. But you can bet I will be spending more time talking about the results soon!

Alarmists find new things to worry about

A news release by PRNewswire highlights “startling data” regarding young people’s exposure to dubious content online — the second component of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. A study conducted by Nielsen Online for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) found that:

— “Nearly one in 20 teens online viewed drug-related videos during a one- month period” (uh, that means less than 5 percent, in case you haven’t noticed. Not too earth-shattering, IMO) AND 35 percent were under age 16. This means that just over 1% of youth under 16 have seen a drug-related video in the past month. Yawn. It gets even sketchier when we take the next statistic:

— Almost 40 percent of drug-related videos contain explicit use of drugs and/or intoxication.

Overall, it means this: less than two percent of youth have seen a video depicting the explicit use of drugs and/or alcohol in the past month. When considering only those youth under the age of 16, the number drops to under half a percent.

I got up for this? Seriously.

The article itself goes on to cite other statistics about exposure to questionable content online. But the sources are less than reputable (usually, sites trying to sell filter software), so are not worth repeating here.

While I commend researchers for looking beyong predator “stranger danger,” I hope that findings such as these do not become the new reason to panic about internet use.

New Study Gets My Kudos!

Not that my blessing carries a lot of weight, but a Rochester Institute of Technology study of more than 40,000 adolescents in the New York area specifically acknowledges in its report that cyberabuse and offending can include “Sending sexual messages or solicitations for sex that are unwanted by recipients” (p. 7). Aha! Someone who explicitly states in a research document that youth send harassing messages that are sexual in nature to other youth! This is not a generic “cyberbullying” study, nor is it a concern for “stranger danger” and creepy adults. It’s youth being sexual (in a negative way) towards other youth. And it is a problem, which they say begins in middle school (though one school district’s children said it began in 2nd grade).

In addition, key findings from the 7th-9th grade sample include:
14% had “communicated online with someone about sexual things”
3% admitted to asking someone for a nude picture
3% admitted to soliciting sexual chat

And 15% of older high schoolers said they engaged in sexual chat. And one in four had been asked about sexual things online.

The “big surprise” is that most of this sexual communication is among peers. A small minority (15%) said that sexual communication occured between them and an adult. Now, 15% is by no means zero, but the bulk is friend-to-friend and peer-to-peer.

Hopefully, data like these can be used to inform educators, parents, and even legislators about where our priorties should lie. And, to me, that is in beefing up the material in our sex education curricula. Ah, I am so good at my one-note tune.

What’s in a Name?

In a classic example of communication breakdown, a new study reports that over half (58%) of those surveyed do not know what “social networking” is. The international study did note that 70% of Americans did recognize the term. However, that means that close to 1 in 3 persons in this country have somehow not been exposed to the phrase, or simply don’t remember what it means. Implications? We need to be careful about the terms we use when talking about the phenomenon of interacting with others in these types of online spaces. I know I am guilty of talking about “social networking,” as I do not want to call out certain sites and brands when talking about the concept as a whole. Too often, MySpace is scapegoated because people talk about the dangers associated with social networking in general, but end up picking on the best-known of the bunch (too bad that survey didn’t ask the percentage of persons who have heard of MySpace specifically). But if using the term “social networking” alienates too many people, then we fail to get our message across. While I have no answers, I do believe this issue is important; much like my last post on cyberbulling vs. electronic aggression, I want to stress the need to come to some semblance of consensus on terms so that we educate the public, not confuse them. And given the Ivory Tower’s bad reputation for trying to claim expertise at the expense of being useful or collaborative, there is ample reason to prioritize clear communication about issues without using all those fancy and/or new words.