Should You Monitor Your Teen’s Online Activity?

From the WebMD Archives

When your teen goes online, where does she go and what does she do? The Internet makes information accessible in ways previous generations never imagined. Social networking has all but replaced the telephone as teens’ preferred way to communicate. And online videos are putting television programmers on alert in the quest for American teens’ attention.

The Internet is also a place where anyone can say anything, where knowing the difference between fact and fiction is harder than most teens or adults realize. For parents worried about their teenager’s possible substance abuse, online activity can seem as hazardous as a boozy, unsupervised party.

Online safety experts advise parents to stay on top their teens’ activities. Easier said than done. “As a parent, it’s very easy not to know what’s going on, especially if your kid is smart or creative about hiding things from you,” says John Rodolico, PhD, director of adolescent addictions training at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

Tracking teens’ online activities is even harder if parents feel lost in the online universe. This article explores teen Internet use, drug information they may find, and low and high-tech ways parents can watch out for their kids’ well being.

Teens Are Teens, Online or Off

The Internet is the way most kids communicate with the world today. About 93% of kids aged 12 to 17 go online, with 73% of these teens using social media such as Facebook or MySpace, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

“The fact is, kids are online, and most of them are smarter than we realize.” Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org, tells WebMD. Even if they want to, parents cannot effectively ban kids from using the Internet, and often there’s no good reason to do so.

Typically, teenagers use the Internet to be teenagers. Researchers at California State University reviewed teen blogs and chat groups and found what many experts suspected, that standard teen issues -- family, peers, romance, and identity -- constitute the bulk of the online discussions. Besides communicating, teens typically use the Internet to get news about current events; purchase books, clothing, or music; or get information about health, weight loss, and fitness.

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Teens Can Learn About Drugs Online

Nonetheless, if a teenager is using drugs or leaning in that direction, the Internet provides ample reinforcement. A motivated teen can find a mountain of drug information online, including YouTube videos of teens tripping on cough medicine and information about drugs that defy standard urine tests.

A number of web sites (erowid.org, lycaeum.org, and dancesafe.org, to name a few) claim to provide a balanced picture of drug use. Some include “trip” or “experience” reports, in which individuals describe the highs they’ve achieved using recreational drugs. These sites could influence teens who are already using drugs and others looking to justify their decision to experiment with drugs.

“I have had kids insist vehemently that there is nothing wrong with marijuana and that you can’t become dependent on it because they found that information online,” says Rodolico. After 30 years of working with kids, Rodolico knows that trying to convince teens of nearly anything is a losing battle. “We can’t ban kids from the Internet, but in groups we do tell kids if they don’t want to relapse, they should stay away from those (drug reinforcing) sites,” he says.

The Role of Parents on the Internet

With such online perils, tried and true parenting skills, such as letting children know you love them and setting clear, consistent guidelines, may be more important than ever. “Parents should be proactive and fold the Internet into engaged parental activity,” says Anne Collier, executive director of Net Family News Inc. Collier advises parents to talk to their kids regularly about their online activities: what sites they visit most often and if they ever see things that make them uneasy.

Parents can also use the Internet to help kids develop critical thinking skills. “There’s a difference between credible, reliable sources and those that aren’t,” says Magid. You may illustrate this point by sitting down with your child to compare drug information on a variety of sites. If your child pulls up a pro-drug site, have her compare the information to clubdrugs.gov, hosted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and www.drugfree.org, hosted by the Partnership at Drugfreee.org.

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'Friend' Your Teen on Social Media

Lack of experience does not have to stop you. If your teen knows more than you do, and most teens do these days, you have a social media expert in your home. Ask him to show you the social networking ropes. If you do not have an account, ask your teen to help you set one up, preferably on the same network he frequents.

According to a recent survey, in households where both kids and parents have a Facebook account, one-third of parents got help from their kids in setting up their accounts. The vast majority (86%) of these parents are Facebook friends with their kids. Being your teen’s friend provides a window into what she and her friends are saying on her profile page. Some parents go a step further and have their teens give them their usernames and passwords. Given that 60% of teens report setting up controls to block certain content from their parent’s view, logging on as your child may give you a more complete picture.

Consider the Pros and Cons of Online Monitoring

Browser histories provide a record of the sites visited on that computer. Whether or not you monitor your teen’s browser history comes down to personal choice. Rodolico, who works with teen addicts, advises parents to “go ahead and monitor, as long as you monitor all of your kids’ activities, not just one.”

Meanwhile, Collier and Magid, who work with parents of non-addicted teens, warn of the pitfalls of online monitoring. “If you find something suspicious, you’ll need to talk to your child about it,” says Collier. If you’ve been monitoring your teen’s online history without her knowing, the discussion will likely go off topic. “It will turn into a conversation about trust, with your child feeling like you don’t trust her, and she can’t trust you.”

All three experts agree that kids can and do find workarounds to their parent’s investigative efforts. For instance, kids can easily clear a browser’s history, or even remove certain sites and leave others. Parents should therefore not get a false sense of security if their monitoring efforts turn up a squeaky clean slate. Monitoring your teen's online activities is a poor substitute for parent-child communications.

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How to Check Your Teen's Online Activity

Different Internet browsers have slightly different ways of pulling up the history. Below are step-by-step guides for three of the most popular Internet browsers. If your child uses a different browser, go to the online support page for that program and search for “Browser History.”

  • In Internet Explorer, select the Favorites menu and select History. You will see a listing that can be sorted by date, site name, sites visited most often or most frequently.
  • In Safari, select the History menu and then select Show All History. If you want to see further back into the browser’s history, go to the Safari menu and select Preferences. In the General preferences, look for Remove History Items and select a time frame.
  • In Firefox, select the History menu and then select Show All History

A number of software programs are available to help parents keep a watchful eye on their kids’ online activities. Some, such as SafetyWeb and SocialShield, will send an alert to parents if language or photos in their child’s social networking activities signal possible trouble.

Keep in mind, your child can probably get around your monitoring efforts. Further, if you monitor without maintaining an open dialogue with your teenager, you may miss the opportunity to help him develop safe Internet skills that will serve him well, no matter what new technology comes along next.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 15, 2011

Sources

SOURCES:

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: "Keeping Kids Safer on the Internet."

Palfrey, J. Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives, Basic Books, 2010.

John Rodolico, PhD, director of adolescent addictions training, senior addictions consultant, McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate.

Larry Magid, co-director, ConnectSafely.org. 

Lenhart A. Pew Internet & American Life Project: Social Media and Young Adults. 2010. 

Subrahmanyam, K. Project MUSE - The Future of Children, 2008; vol 18: pp 119-146.

Subrahmanyam, K. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace; April 2007; vol 1.

Wax, P. Pediatrics, 2002; vol 109: p e96.

Rosen, L.  Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 2008; vol 29: pp 459-471.

Anne Collier, executive director, Net Family News, Inc.

TRUSTe. "The Kids Are Alright*: A study of the privacy habits of parents and their teens on social networks."

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PCMag.com Review. 

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