Today kids go online and spend oodles of time there, beginning ever-younger as new tech devices make it easier and easier to get there. Parents worry that all the screen time crowds out homework, exercise, outdoor and imaginary play, face-to-face social interaction, and plain old living. Parents worry about more dire things too: that children will meet strangers, view pornography, see violence in videos and games, and become victims or perpetrators of online bullying. A study published recently in the journal Policy and Internet showed what worries parents most about their kids’ time online and which demographic groups of parents feel the greatest concern.
In “Connected and Concerned: Variation in Parents' Online Safety Concerns,” Eszter Hargittai and Danah Boyd report the results of their nationally representative survey conducted in 2011 of 1,007 U.S. parents, age 26 and over, who had children ages 10-14 living with them. Of the things parents felt “extremely concerned” about, meeting a stranger online topped the list (63 percent), followed by exposure to pornography (57 percent) and violent content (35 percent). One in three parents felt that concern about their child becoming a victim of bullying (32 percent) or bullying someone else online (17 percent).
The survey also showed that not all parents worry equally. Black, Hispanic, and Asian parents were significantly more likely than white parents to be concerned about their children’s online activities. Black parents were concerned about children meeting harmful strangers and exposure to pornography; Asian parents worried most about exposure to pornography. Lower income parents showed considerably higher levels of fear about online bullying. Urban parents harbored more fear of all four online safety issues than their suburban and rural counterparts.
Other interesting findings: Moms worried more than dads about their child being bullied online. Parents of daughters and younger children showed relatively more concerned about them meeting strangers and viewing violent content. Liberal parents were significantly less concerned than conservatives about kids seeing pornography and also less fearful than moderates of children meeting strangers online.
What explains these results? Prior experience with three of the issues—bullying, pornography, and violence—was an especially strong predictor of parents’ fear levels but, surprisingly, parents of a child who had met a harmful stranger were “no more likely—and, perhaps, slightly less likely—to fear that their child will meet a stranger who will do them harm.” The reason for this is unclear, but the authors surmise, “some types of parents are more concerned than other parents, regardless of experience.” And since black, Hispanic, and Asian the parents were most likely to worry, even with controls for income and education, the authors sense that “negatively online, such as racism and hatred” is the root cause of their greater fears.
The survey unfortunately did not examine how parents’ levels and types of concern correlate with children’s time online and, particularly, unsupervised time. Parents lose their option to control tech-time by separating children from devices, when schools require homework and reading assignments on computers and, increasingly, tablets. Further, today more than one of three teens own a smart phone, making it even more difficult for parents to supervise and control online time and behavior. Personally I’ve witnessed the creeping increase in online time in my children’s lives with sadness, for not only does it heighten safety issues such as those reported here, it guarantees continued encroachment of the virtual world on the finite hours of childhood—time kids can never get back. That’s something to fear.