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Think You Know What Your Teens Do Online? Think Again

A new survey shows a surprising gap between perception and reality

Published on: January 16, 2018

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Teens with phones

When parents say that they know what their teens are doing online, are they kidding themselves? According to a survey by Common Sense Media and SurveyMonkey, parents can track, follow and check in with their teens — and still be out of touch with reality.

The disconnect may come from the time-honored tension between parents' impulse to protect their kids and teens' desire for independence. When parents hear horror stories about what kids put on Snapchat and other social media platforms, they double down on their efforts to be more involved. But to teens, this feels intrusive, and they find ways to tiptoe around the issues or appease their parents.

To better understand if parents and teens are on the same page about teens’ online behaviors, check out the key findings from the survey:

Parents feel they know what teens are doing online, but teens don’t think so: More than half of parents with teenagers age 14 to 17 say they are "extremely" or "very aware" of what their kids are doing online; just 30 percent of teens say their parents are "extremely" or "very aware" of what they’re doing online.

Parents are tracking their teens more than teens know: 26 percent of parents say they use a tracking or monitoring device or service to learn what their teens are doing online, while only 15 percent of kids think their parents do so.

Teens are more on the level than their parents give them credit for: 34 percent of parents believe their teen has hidden online accounts, but only 27 percent of teens say they do.

Parents are most nervous about Snapchat: Snapchat is the app parents are most concerned about (29 percent), much more than Facebook (16 percent). Only 6 percent of parents are nervous about Instagram. Some parents aren't nervous at all about the apps their teens use; Twenty percent say that "no apps and websites are concerning."

Older parents are less aware of what their teens are doing online: Younger parents are more likely to say that they are more aware of what their teens are doing online. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of parents age 18 to 34 say they are "extremely" or "very aware" of what their teens are doing online; under half of parents 55 and older say the same.

Facebook and Twitter aren't cool: More than three-quarters of teens use Instagram and Snapchat, but just half use Facebook and fewer use Twitter.

Parents follow their kids on Facebook, but not much on other platforms: A large majority of teens who use Facebook are friends with their parents on the platform. Fewer of those who use Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter follow or are friends with their parents on those platforms.

Given that kids will almost certainly be doing things online that their parents won't know about, it's important to talk early and often about being safe online. Just because a teen behaves one way on Facebook does not mean they behave the same way on Instagram or Snapchat, platforms where parents are less likely to be. There are also partial technical solutions to keeping kids safe, like setting up parental controls and checking device privacy settings, but they're not foolproof.

If you want to get a better grasp on what your kids are doing, just ask! Have your teen take you on a tour of their platforms so they can show you their privacy settings and give you examples of how social media makes them feel. Even surly teens may be happy to assume the role of an expert and do what they can to ease your fears. And if it doesn't, it's at least an opportunity to open a conversation about what can be done better.

Methodology

This Common Sense Media/SurveyMonkey online poll was conducted Sept. 20 – Oct. 12, 2017, among a national sample of 884 teens age 14 to 17 and 3,282 parents of teens. Respondents for this survey were selected from the nearly 3 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. The modeled error estimate for this survey is plus or minus 2 percentage points for all adults, 2.5 percentage points for parents of teens, and 3.5 percentage points for teens. Data have been weighted to reflect the demographic composition of the United States in terms of age, race, sex, education and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community.

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