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Parents: do you know where your teens are online? Probably not, study says

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Kriss Russell/Thinkstock

Teens' online lives are not just a mystery to their parents; they are a murky mix of risk, cheating, illicit 'fun' and bullying (along with a vast array of perfectly reasonable activity).

Most parents are clueless about their teenagers' lives online, a new study says. What's worse, those parents wrongly think they know what's going on and how to keep track.

It's not so much a generation gap as a complete disconnect, according to a new study called " The Digital Divide: How the Online Behavior of Teens is Getting Past Parents," conducted by Tru Research and commissioned by McAfee, the software giant best known for anti-viral and protection software.

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"While it is not necessarily surprising that teens are engaging in the same types of rebellious behaviors online that they exhibit offline, it is surprising how disconnected their parents are," Stanley Holditch, a McAfee safety analyst, said in a summary accompanying the report.

Some highlights:

  • One in three teens admit to watching porn online while barely one in 10 parents believed their teens would do such a thing.
  • Almost half (48-per cent) of teenagers admit to cheating on tests or school assignments – looking up answers online often with smartphones from inside exam rooms – while less than a one-in-four parents knew it was happening.
  • A third of teenagers report that they have engaged in online crime; pirating movies or music and fully half admit to hacking into some else’s social account.

The gaping disparity between how teenagers are living online and what their parents think is going on may result from a sharp increase in deliberate efforts by teens to hide their online wanderings from their parents.

Fully 70 per cent of teenager respondents told the survey that they actively deceive their parents. Those efforts range from clearing browser histories to maintaining duplicate or fake online profiles.

More ominously, a significant number of teens admit to behavior that they regard as 'risky' but do it anyway. For instance, 12 per cent said they had agreed to meet someone in person who they had befriended online.

Similarly, cyberbullying is rampant and seems to be on the rise. One in four teens claims to have been the targets of an online attack. Worse, nearly 10 per cent admit to bullying others and one-in-four admit to posting nasty or mean comments about others. According to McAfee's summary of the findings, "Facebook is the new schoolyard for bullies" with more than 90 per cent of respondents who admit to witnessing cyberbullying saying it occurred on Facebook. That may reflect the overwhelming dominance of Facebook in the online social world.

There are plenty of parental-control programs and filters available, including such top-rated fee ones such as OnlineFamily.Norton, Windows Live Family Safety and KidZui but they may be more useful with young children. Teens seems to delight in detouring around them.

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Tech-savvy teenagers are not only outwitting their parents online, they are far more adept at hiding their online tracks and defeating efforts to monitor them.

"There is a major increase in the number of teens finding ways to hide what they do online from their parents, as compared to the 2010 study," McAfee said. "This is a generation that is so comfortable with technology that they are surpassing their parents in understanding and getting away with behaviors that are putting their safety at risk."

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About the Author
International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More


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