Researchers seek ideal parenting style for teen online safety

Stephanie Koons
March 26, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Many parents struggle with the age-old question of when to give their children the space to navigate their own lives and learn by trial and error, and when to take a more proactive role in guiding them to sound decisions. In recent years, the widespread use of social networking sites among teens has introduced a new set of privacy and safety threats. According to researchers at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), the ideal parental mediation strategy may be a combination of both approaches – taking some preventative measures without being too restrictive and taking reactive measures when teens put themselves at risk online.

 “It really needs to be a balanced approach,” said Pamela Wisniewski, a post-doctoral scholar. “Parents should empower their teens to make good choices online and help them when they don’t.”

Wisniewski, along with post-doctoral scholar Haiyan Jia and professors Heng Xu, Mary Beth Rosson and Jack Carroll, conducted a secondary analysis of the 2012 Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project’s “Teens and Privacy Management Survey” of 588 teens (ages 12-17) and one of their parents living in the United States. The nationally representative data were collected from July 26 to Sept. 30, 2012. They reported the results of their analysis in their paper, “’Preventative’ vs. ‘Reactive:’ How Parental Mediation Influences Teens’ Social Media Privacy Behaviors.” The paper won an Honorable Mention Award at the 18th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing ( CSCW 2015), which was held March 14-18, 2015 in Vancouver, Canada.

Through an empirical analysis of the survey data, the Penn State researchers developed insights into how parental privacy concerns for their teens and different parental mediation strategies may influence teen privacy concerns and social media privacy behaviors on Facebook. The researchers identified and examined two types of parental mediation strategies from the 2012 Pew survey: direct parental intervention through the use of parental controls and/or reading and setting up a teen’s social media privacy settings for him or her; and active parental mediation, which includes talking with the teen about what he or she posts, reviewing information the teen posts, and/or commenting on Facebook.

“Both teens and parents need to be aware of what the consequences (of social networking) can be,” Jia said. “I would say the ultimate goal (of our research) is to highlight how technology has been evolving so teens and parents can be more aware of risks.”

The researchers examined two types of teen social media privacy behaviors: risk-taking behaviors and risk-coping behaviors. Risk-taking behaviors include teens’ sharing of basic information (e.g. photos, real name, birth date and relationship status), sharing of more sensitive information (e.g. videos of him or herself, cell phone number, email address, etc.), and partaking in risky interactions (e.g. online communication with strangers, regrettable information disclosures and automatic location sharing). Risk-coping behaviors include seeking advice from others and taking remedy/corrective measures, such as posting fake information, deleting posted content, blocking or deleting individuals, and/or deactivating one’s account.

The researchers found that direct parental intervention was associated with teens being more cautious and conservative in their online behaviors. When parents took a more proactive role in managing their teens’ online activities, such as reading website privacy policy, helping set up privacy settings and using parental monitoring software to filter or block content, the teens disclosed less information on social media sites and sought more advice on how to manage their online privacy, thereby preventing the need to take corrective actions.

“In contrast, we found parental active mediation to be positively associated with teens’ disclosure of sensitive information and remedy/corrective behaviors,” the researchers wrote. “This suggests that active parental mediation may afford teens a higher level of autonomy to make more risky disclosure decisions but also encourages teens to learn from their mistakes and take corrective actions to protect their online privacy in a more reactive fashion.”

Direct parental intervention, according to the researchers, reflects a more restrictive and controlling parenting style. Parents who mediate their teens through direct intervention tend to be more restrictive and risk-adverse, and this approach is reflected in the privacy behaviors of their teens. Teens that experience higher levels of direct parental intervention tend to be younger, disclose less basic information online, and use social networking sites less frequently.

While this strategy may be effective in reducing risky information disclosures and behaviors, Jia and Wisniewski said, it also may prevent teens from experiencing the benefits of online engagement, such as the ability to engage with others online and learning how to effectively cope with online risks. The researchers stated in their paper that it may be beneficial for parents to combine active mediation with direct intervention “so that they can protect their teens from severe online risk while empowering them to benefit from online engagement and make good online privacy choices.”

“When teens take online risks, they actually build confidence, or a skill set,” Jia said. “It’s OK to let teens explore a little bit so they can learn to mitigate risks on their own.”

In contrast to the more proactive style of direct intervention, active parental mediation is a more reactive approach to teen online safety. Parents who actively mediate their teens’ online behavior may monitor the information their teens post online, talk with their teens, and comment on their teens’ online posts, but they do not necessarily directly intervene in their teens’ online privacy behaviors. Teens that experience higher levels of active mediation tend to be older, use social networking sites more frequently, and disclose more sensitive information online. In addition, parents who are more acquainted with technology tend to be more effective at monitoring their teens’ online activities.    

“Parental active mediation allows teens to be more experiential and reflective because their parents are not attempting to directly control their social media privacy behaviors,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

While teens benefit from technology use and online engagement, the researchers stated, doing so also exposes them to privacy-related risks. The researchers found a pattern of risk escalation between the three teen risk-taking behaviors, from basic information disclosures, to sensitive information disclosures, to risky interactions.  While teens’ self-reported risky online interactions, such as connecting to strangers or being contacted in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, was the most alarming type of privacy risk perceived by teens, this risk-taking behavior was not associated with either type of parental mediation. Only sensitive disclosures made by teens were associated with higher levels of active parental mediation. The researchers believe the reason this association is not present in their model is because risky interactions may be less transparent to parents than sensitive information disclosures that can be more readily discovered by actively searching the teens’ social media profile. This is an issue with growing significance, the researchers noted, as mobile applications such as Snapchat and Secret support more discreet communication methods among teens[HJ2] . Parents’ unawareness of such new platforms and their potential risks, Jia said, and teens’ increased self-disclosure encouraged by the seemingly private communication channels, are likely to lead to problems such as online harassment and cyber-bullying.

“It’s important to talk to the teens themselves so they realize there is an escalation pattern,” Jia said. “If you disclose sensitive information online, you are more at risk for being in risky situations.”

“Parents also need to be educated,” she added. “They need to know how information technology can allow teens to communicate using different methods.”

Findings from the study, according to Wisniewski, Jia and Xu, can be used to design measures to improve teens’ online safety. For example, the preventive and reactive mechanisms of parental mediation identified in the study provide a conceptual foundation for building more effective parental monitoring software. Currently, parental monitoring software primarily facilitates direct parental intervention strategies of blocking and restricting teen online behavior.

“As teens get older, parental monitoring software is no longer a viable solution to let parents know what their teens are doing online,” Wisniewski said.

As an alternative to current models, one potential design implication is a call for parental monitoring software that acts as a tool to facilitate conversations between parents and teens about online behaviors and risks. For example, new parental monitoring software features could integrate with the Facebook application platform to let parents know how often and with whom their teens engage online.

“We want to develop intervention strategies, such as public awareness programs and technological innovation such as apps that can be customized to different parenting strategies,” Xu said.

Future research in this area, Wisniewski said, will focus on designing solutions to online risks that foster teen resilience and strength building, as supposed to solutions targeted towards parents that focus on restriction and risk prevention.

This research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017