Parents Know Little About What Their Kids Do Online

Like The Pill changed how people shared their bodies, social media changed what personal information young people will share with casual acquaintances or perfect strangers.
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Roughly 25% of all teens have posted a risky photo of themselves online (thank you, Snapchat), but only one in eleven parents knows this is happening. The next time you take a group picture of your child's closest four friends at the local eatery, odds are at least one friend has posted a different picture online.

Pew and McAfee recently published reports saying young people overshare on social networks. They also say that most parents have little idea what their kids do online because young people adeptly shield their activities from prying eyes.

Nothing in the reports contradicts what we know of teenage behavior. Only two in five parents believe their kids confess to all of their Internet activities. The findings merely codify what kids do online and how little we know about their lives.

Why does this matter? Because the lack of face-to-face communication makes teens crueler. Social media has made one in 10 kids afraid to go to school or fear for their safety. As kids get older, they get meaner. By college, the report found one in three teens has seen cruel behavior. One in six collegians has been the victim of it. You would think students seeing cruel behavior would never believe it could happen to them, but then again these same kids overshare on social networks.

The Pew and McAfee reports show 86 percent of young people post things online they should not -- like photos of themselves, phone numbers and addresses -- even though they know it is a mistake. This is how they get in trouble. But kids and adults engage in behaviors they "know" are harmful to their well-being. Take smoking cigarettes, for example.

Young people spend an average of six hours per day online, the reports found, and look at their digital lives as a part of who they are, and not a separate or distinct part. We have to recognize that most teens have integrated 24/7 social media into their communication streams the way baby boomers took to the telephone.

Like The Pill changed how people shared their bodies, social media changed what personal information young people will share with casual acquaintances or perfect strangers. You can argue about whether the sexual revolution was good, but it happened and we moved on. Social media has happened and we still seek the new normal, while young people nakedly lay bare all of their personal information in a way that terrifies their parents.

Technology also mystifies many parents. Only 20% say they know how to find out what their kids are doing online and 72% throw up their hands, admitting defeat by modern technology. Kids know their parents do not have, or more accurately do not make, the time to monitor their digital lives. According to the McAfee report, "58% of tweens say they know how to hide what they do from their parents, and this number jumps to 65% for teens, and 80% for young adults."

According to the reports, roughly 70% of parents say they have had the safe sexting talk with their kids, but only 44% of the kids remember hearing it. This isn't a big surprise for anyone who has raised a teenager. Important conversations that contradict established behavior patterns are often ignored as children seek independence. As kids get older and develop more independence, they listen to their parents less. Then monitoring their online behavior becomes more difficult, especially as they migrate to mobile devices.

Still, we have to try to learn more about our children's online behavior. Nearly half of the young people surveyed said they would change their behavior if they knew their parents looked behind the digital curtain.