Not My Teen: Navigating Risks Teens Face in the Digital Age

Every month, we keep you informed on the latest studies and research in our “Not My Teen” blog series. Today, we’re looking at studies from the University of Central Florida and Common Sense Media, which examine the online risks teenagers face and how they communicate about the risks with their parents.

Ask any parent and they will tell you – teens are glued to their phones these days. In fact, a recent survey discovered teens spend more than three  hours a day online on a mobile device. As parents, we wonder whether our teens are being exposed to harmful content. What are they doing in their digital worlds? And how can we protect them?

A recent Forbes article explored the risks teens encounter online and the likelihood that they will discuss such risks with their parents. The article reviewed findings from this study, which compared the differences in how teens and their parents reported online risks. Specifically, the study evaluated 68 parent-teen pairs and tracked reporting of the following incidents: information breaches, online harassment, sexual solicitations, and exposure to explicit content.

The study found that only 15 percent of the risks reported by teens and their parents overlapped. The reports that matched were most often related to online harassment or sexual solicitations, incidents that are of greater risk to the teen. Overall, the study found that teens only told their parents about encountering risky online situations 25 percent of the time. The main reasons teens didn’t ask for help? They felt embarrassed or feared negative reactions from their parents.

The reality is that online harassment and exposure to unwanted content aren’t the only online risks parents need to worry about. In this digital age, fake news also presents a constant threat to tweens and teens. A recent Time article examined the findings of a Common Sense Media survey assessing digital natives’ abilities to spot false information.

The study reported that less than 45 percent of American tweens and teens cannot accurately spot fake news. Two thirds of participants most trust information received from their parents, and tweens (ages 10 to 12) even cite their parents as their preferred news source. Teenagers (ages 13 to 18) place the most trust in news from their parents, but prefer to get their information from social media, specifically Facebook.

While you can’t block every digital risk, false news article, or mature piece of content from your teens’ life, you can help them navigate online obstacles. Pamela Wisniewski Ph.D., lead author of the study conducted at the University of Central Florida, explains the three ways to help your teen navigate the complex digital domain.

  • Listen without judgement. Technology has changed the way teenagers develop. Therefore, before jumping to conclusions, listen to your teen to fully understand the situation and context. Wisniewski says, “Understand they are living in a different world and are exposed to all kinds of content that may be alarming to us, but overreacting does nothing to help teens navigate these experiences.” Listening is key in understanding the challenges teens face at a time when technology and information are always readily available.
  • Do not lecture. Although lecturing is not implicitly stating punishment, Wisniewski says, “It is possible that teens may perceive parental lectures as a form of punishment even though parents did not enact formal restrictions.” Teens respond best to calm and understanding reactions. They are more likely to reach out for help in the future if they do not fear punishment or negative reactions.
  • Look for educational opportunities. Teens trust information from their parents and the new digital age presents unique challenges to communicating. Talk to your teens about recent news and online risks. Researchers compared the need for online education to sex education and suggest parents visit Common Sense Media and the Family Online Safety Institute for additional resources.

Do you have any of your own tips to share? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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