By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Most parents monitor their teen's digital life and use access as discipline tool, survey says
Parents face challenges monitoring and guiding their teens' use of social media, smartphones and other digital technologies. Most take a hands-on approach, a new Pew survey finds. - photo by Lois M Collins
Lori Hazelip didnt leave much to chance when her daughter, Emily, now 16, first ventured into the digital world that makes up such a large part of a typical American teenagers life. Early on, the Bakersfield, California, mom had her daughter sign a contract outlining the familys digital dos and donts.

Hazelip knows her daughters logins and passwords.

I used to heavily monitor her, and she knows I can and will randomly check, said Hazelip, who describes her daughter as pretty open about where she goes online.

Digital access by teens is common and important but remains a bit of a wild frontier. According to a Pew Research Center report released Thursday, parents face challenges monitoring and guiding their teens' use of social media, smartphones and other digital technologies. The report, based on a survey of parents who have children ages 13 to 17, found most parents, like the Hazelips, have opted for a hands-on approach and use digital access as a "potent disciplinary tool."

Parents are more likely to look at what their kids are doing, talk with them about it and monitor it in a personal way, as opposed to relying on tech solutions, said Aaron Smith, Pew associate director of research.

Different approaches

The report, Parents, Teens and Digital Monitoring, notes that "widespread adoption of various digital technologies has added a modern wrinkle to a universal challenge of parenthood specifically, striking a balance between allowing independent exploration and providing an appropriate level of parental oversight."

Nearly all the parents surveyed (94 percent) said theyve talked to their children about what is and is not appropriate online behavior, with about 40 percent saying they have that conversation often.

Beyond that, they take a wide range of approaches, said Smith. Some monitor everything and use every tool in their toolbox to keep an eye on things, while others allow their kids a little more independence and room for personal exploration. Typically, as children get older, as in many aspects of growing up, their independence grows online, he added.

The report found 95 percent of parents have talked with their teens about appropriate media consumption, and 36 percent revisit the topic frequently.

Other digital-related conversations most parents have had include whats appropriate to view online (95 percent) and how they act toward others online (92 percent).

This is something that parents are really concerned about and think is important, said Smith. Just like parents are talking to their kids about how to behave in person, in school, in their social life, they are also trying to prepare their kids for how to navigate these waters they currently spend a lot of time in and are going to have to learn to navigate in an independent way as they move into adulthood.

It is a common misconception, he added, that because teens have grown up with the Internet and are good at texting and social media, they instinctively know how to behave appropriately in that realm. Thats a skill set they must learn, like any other.

Karen Sjoblom of Santee, California, knows helping them navigate online is part of her job as a parent to her four children, including daughters 14 and 12 who are at varying degrees moving through a digital landscape. Her oldest has a smartphone as well as a Chromebook that is provided by her school as a homework tool. The 12-year-old just got a smartphone and both girls have e-readers. The younger children, boys 8 and nearly 10, have some access to a computer and video games.

Recently we've had family discussions about pornography and addictions to screen time. A recent conversation centered on the behavioral side effects of too much screen time we were seeing in our children," she said. "We talked about how just sitting in front of a screen can mess with their brains. We discussed how we should control our time and attention and not the devices controlling us.

Setting limits

The report outlines some of the issues that challenge teens and their concerned parents. "Digital connectivity offers many potential benefits from connecting with peers to accessing educational content. But parents have also voiced concerns about the behaviors teens engage in online, the people with whom they interact and the personal information they make available," the report states. "Indeed, these concerns are not limited to parents. Lawmakers and advocates have raised concerns about issues such as online safety, cyberbullying and privacy issues affecting teens."

Among the findings, more than 6 in 10 parents say they have ever checked the websites their teens visit, while a like number have checked the youths social media profiles. Slightly fewer 56 percent have friended or followed their teen on a social media platform. Some are more likely than others. For instance, far fewer parents follow their children on Twitter than on Facebook. Just under half say they have ever looked through their teens phone call records of text messages.

Digital access has for some families also has become a tool parents can use to enforce rules. The report said that 65 percent of parents have digitally grounded a teenager by removing online or cellphone access as punishment.

In their contract, Hazelip and her husband Mark spelled out the rules and consequences. They have lived up to the terms of the agreement, too. Twice over the years, they've temporarily suspended their daughter's digital access, as they warned they would once for having a friend that she personally did not know, Hazelip said, and once for changing her password without telling her folks.

"A potent discipline tool" is the description used by report lead author Monica Anderson, a Pew research analyst, because teens use digital media to navigate all aspects of their day-to-day lives from participating in school work to interacting with their friends to engaging with potential romantic partners."

That two-thirds of parents have removed some type of digital access as a punishment speaks to the central place these platforms play in the lives of teenagers today, Smith said.

Before fielding the survey, Smith said Pew used focus groups to get a sense in a personal setting of how teens engage with technology. He said participating teens agreed that losing digital or screen privileges really gets their attention.

The report also found more than half of parents have limited how long or when teens can be online, regardless of their overall behavior.

Time limits and rules are important, said Sjoblom. The first rule in our house is that phones, tablets and laptops are not to be used or kept in the bedroom, especially in the evening and never with the door closed. All devices may be charged in family areas, not in their bedrooms. Our kids also know that their dad and I can look at their phones and activity at any time. They must ask permission to purchase any apps or games."

The Sjobloms turn off the Wi-Fi connection between 8 p.m. (9 p.m. for the oldest) and 8 a.m., she said. And they, too, are among the majority who suspend electronic privileges when the rules are broken.
Sign up for our E-Newsletters