What to Watch for in Teens’ Online Behavior

Today’s teens live in a world in which much of their lives — scholastic, social and otherwise — take place online. This puts parents in the difficult position of wanting to protect their children while trying to respect their privacy.

There’s a fine line between monitoring and snooping, but most experts agree that it is better to err on the side of caution when it comes to tracking your teens’ online activities given the dangers — predators, cyberbullying — that are present.

There are lots of programs out there that let parents track their children’s online activities, from what sites they visit to their social media posts and instant message conversations. But teens are likely more online savvy than most of their parents, which means that parents have to do their best to stay current with the online world that their kids live in.

It also means they can’t be naïve — as much as their children can be at risk of becoming victims of online activity, they may very well perpetrate risky behaviors too. These include the expected and the unexpected.

A study released in 2012 showed that 43 percent of teens access violent content, while 32 percent look at pornographic content. That may not be surprising, but additionally, 15 percent of the more than 2,000 teens surveyed in this study had hacked into social networks; 9 percent hacked into email accounts; and 16 percent said they used mobile devices to cheat on tests at school.

Even more troubling is that teens are very good at hiding these behaviors from their parents. According to the study, 53 percent said they clear web browser histories; 23 percent used computers their parents don’t check; 21 percent used mobile devices; 15 percent created private emails their parents don’t know about; and 9 percent created duplicate and/or fake social networking profiles.

Because teens likely can, if they choose, hide their online activities from their parents, experts say that parents’ best defense is an old fashioned parenting tactic: Talking to your kids.

Because teens likely can, if they choose, hide their online activities from their parents, experts say that parents’ best defense is an old fashioned parenting tactic: Talking to your kids. Early on, parents should outline what types of behavior and interactions are appropriate, outline the dangers that come with interacting with strangers — and friends — online, and lay down ground rules about how and when their kids are permitted to use the Internet.

If parents want to use the web browser and system settings that restrict Internet access, or to download programs that track online activity, experts recommend that they be up front with their teens that they are doing this so that everyone involved understands the situation.

Parents who worry or suspect that their kids are behaving in inappropriate online activity can watch for these signs:

  1. Large Amounts of time Spent Online: If your teen spends an inordinate amount of time at home online instead of going out with friends, particularly over the weekend, there may be a problem.
  2. Suspicious Behavior. If your teen closes or changes the web page whenever you walk into the room, something is up. Also, if they’re constantly looking around to see if you’re in the room while they’re online, that’s a red flag.
  3. Unrecognized Contact. If your teen is getting phone calls or mail from people you don’t know, not kids from school or their soccer team, know that this is a potential huge red flag: Online predators eventually want to take virtual relationships into the real world, and such contact is an initial step in doing so.
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