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Teens and the internet

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: a survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

Use of the internet is a big part of teens’ lives. According to a 2015 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey, 92% of teens age 13 to 17 go online daily and 71% of teens use more than one social networking site (SNS). Social media platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Google+, Vine, and Tumblr — along with gaming sites and instant messaging, allow teens to have 24/7 access to peer networks through cell phones and other mobile devices. That allows teens to extend the time they spend with people they already know — and sometimes with those they don’t.

Typically teens stay online for longer periods than adults, are more likely to access the internet from different locations, participate in a wider range of online activities, and are more likely to try new technologies. This contributes to both potential opportunities and challenges for young people online.

The positives

The internet provides many opportunities to teens for connection and information gathering. From the teen’s viewpoint, the internet is a place to “hang out.” According to the Pew survey (Lenhart, Madden, Smith, & MacGill, 2007), the top five activities teens use the internet for are:

  • Going to websites about movies, TV shows, music groups or sports stars (81%).
  • Getting information about news and current events (77%).
  • Sending or receiving instant messages (68%).
  • Watching videos on video sharing sites (57%).
  • Using an online social networking site and getting information about a college or university they are thinking of attending (both 55%).

If teens need to find information, they look to the internet first. Access to a wide variety of resources helps them with school projects, as well as pursuing personal interests such as pop culture, sports, and music. Looking at large amounts of data via the internet can enhance teens’ abilities to interpret and manipulate information. Other benefits include developing thinking and writing skills as they post to blogs or other online forums, and connecting with others to discuss shared interests.

The risks

Just as parents are encouraged to monitor where teens are going, who they are with, and what they are doing, parents also need to be knowledgeable about teens’ internet activities, and talk with teens about the potential dangers of sharing personal information online (e.g., phone number, address, passwords). Here are examples of risks the internet poses.

  • Bullying and harassment. Unmonitored social networking could provide a forum for messages that are indecent, demeaning, violent, or racist. Sometimes comments are misinterpreted or intentionally hurtful and the conversation can quickly turn into bullying or harassment.
  • Inappropriate relationships. A teen may not realize that the 15-year-old boy asking to be an online “friend” is really a 45-year-old man. Teens may find themselves in online relationships for which they are unprepared.
  • Victimization. Teens are even more likely than younger children to get in trouble with child molesters or other exploiters. An online relationship may move into the real world if teens are persuaded to give out personal information that allows predators to stalk or meet them in person.
  • Pornography. Natural curiosity might lead to searching for websites with inappropriate or sexually explicit information. Even searching for age-appropriate information on sexuality and development can lead a teen to inappropriate content.
  • Financial risk. Giving out personal information, parents’ credit card, banking, or other financial information could lead to trouble. If an offer appears to be “too good to be true,” then it probably is.

What parents can do

Most parents check what their teen does online and on social media by using web browsers’ history to check which websites their teen visited, checking their teen’s social media profile, looking through their teen’s phone calls and messages, and using parental controls for teen’s online activities (Anderson, 2016).

In addition, parents can monitor their teens’ use of the internet and make it safer by:

  • Learning as much as possible about the internet and becoming familiar with SNS, blogs, and other tools.
  • Talking about internet use no matter how it is accessed. Approach the topic in a positive way with interest in what teens are doing and respect for their knowledge of technology, as opposed to “checking up” on them.
  • Establishing basic rules about amount of internet use and what kinds of information should not be given out, including personal details (full name, address, phone number, and information that would enable strangers to find a teen's physical location or determine their schedule); social security number; pictures that could lead to identification of self, family, or friends; and financial information.
  • Reminding teens to use secure settings. For younger teens’ online activities, parents should keep their own list of passwords and remind teens they will be monitoring their activities occasionally.
  • Not allowing teens to sleep with their cell phone nearby. When teens are always connected, their rest will be interrupted.
  • Paying attention to any behavioral changes that might be related to internet use. Signs to watch for include secretiveness, spending increasing amounts of time on the internet, inappropriate sexual knowledge, or sleeping problems.
  • Monitoring teens’ online purchases, whether material or downloadable. Encourage teens to buy only from reputable companies.

For home computers, parents should consider:

  • Locating the computer in a common area in the home accessible to everyone.
  • Checking the history of what internet sites have been accessed. Telling teens that you will monitor histories helps them monitor themselves.
  • Installing protective software for blocking, monitoring, or filtering websites.

If parents discover their teen has visited an unacceptable website, it is important not to overreact. A conversation about how the website was found and what kind of information was being sought will help sort out the situation. For example, a teen may have accidentally found a porn site when seeking health information. Parents can help teens find credible, helpful websites and teach them to be critical consumers of information. The websites listed under “Related Resources” are a good place to start.

How parents can advise teens

In addition to establishing basic rules, parents should advise teens to:

  • Never agree to meet someone in person they have met online. Teens need to talk with a parent or trusted adult first.
  • Avoid chat rooms or discussion areas that look risky or provocative. Encourage teens to trust their instincts.
  • Be wary of those who want too much information. There is no rule that says personal information must be given out.
  • Log off, close a browser window, or navigate away if something online doesn’t seem right or causes uncomfortable feelings.
  • Never give out passwords, even to friends.

Some parents may have challenges keeping up with their technologically savvy teen. Adults consider themselves more technologically capable than children perceive them to be. Teens can teach their parents a great deal about use of information technologies; this can be a good way for parents and teens to interact with the teen as the expert. However, parents still need to use their own life experiences to provide guidance to their children on safe internet use.

Related resources

Get Net WiseInternet Education Foundation — Find articles on technology use from two blogs: “Connect Safely” and “Net Family News.”

Parent Further: A Search Institute Resource for Families — Strengthen you family’s relationships through shared activities from ParentFurther.

Resources on CyberbullyingKidsHealth, from the Nemours Foundation — Get familiar with the signs and effects of cyberbullying, as well as tips for how to help and what to do when your child is the bully.

Internet Safety: What do I need to know about the internet and my child?University of Michigan Health System — Find detailed instructions on teaching your children about internet safety, taking an active role in your child’s internet activities, and more.

Colleen Gengler, Extension educator in family relations

Revised by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in Department of Family Social Science.

Reviewed in 2018

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