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Kids Online – What Parents Need to Know

by Anita Gurian, PhD

The Internet, the phenomenal resource which has developed over recent years, opens the world for children and teenagers. An endless supply of information and a choice of different ways to interact with others are instantly available. As with all inventions that transform the way we communicate - from the printing press to the telephone to television – there are great advantages, but there’s also a downside.  Parents should be aware of both sides so that they can maximize the benefits.

Why do kids go online?  

Even children as young as three go online to play games. Older children and teenagers, in addition to playing games and surfing for fun, they use e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms and message boards. They turn to the Internet for help with school work, research projects, to download music, to share ideas and make contact with others.

How has the Internet affected teenagers’ lives?  

Although several studies in the 1990s suggested that Internet use can be detrimental and can result in fewer close friendships, more recent studies point to numerous benefits which may now outweigh negative effects. One factor that makes a difference is universal access. In the late 1990s only about one in ten adolescents was online; today the vast majority of teenagers in Western countries have access to the Internet.  Several research organizations have investigated how kids spend time online and how they’re using that time.

What do teenagers actually do online?   

The effect of digital media on how young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life was investigated in an extensive study by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2008.  According to their report, 83% of young people between the ages of 8 and 18 play video games regularly; nearly 75% use instant messaging.  On a typical day, more than half of U.S. teenagers use a computer and more than 40% play a video game.  Using websites like MySpace and Facebook, young people are sharing photos, videos, music, ideas, and opinions online, connecting with a large group of peers in new and sometimes unexpected ways.  A “participatory culture” has resulted, as described in a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.  Motivated to learn from their peers, teens look around for information they’re interested in, customize games, create a home page, experiment with media production,  and connect  with others who can help them, which are active rather than passive activities.    

Authors of the MacArthur Foundation study conclude that teens online are gaining important social and technical skills and that spending time online is essential to pick up the basic social and technical skills they need to be competent in the digital age.

How much time do teenagers actually spend online?  

Many parents lament the time their teenagers spend on the Internet, believing it’s a waste of time. The USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future Report has been tracking steadily rising concerns about the amount of time kids and teens spend online. In 2000, when its surveys began, just 11% of respondents said family members under 18 were spending too much time online; by 2008 the concern had grown to 28%. Thus the percentage of people who say youngsters spend less time with their families has nearly tripled, from 11% in 2006 to 28% in 2008.   

Disadvantages of the Internet    

Parents’ concerns are real. Time spent on the Internet may decrease time spent with the family.  In addition, kids don’t always realize that what they post online can be seen by more than just their friends, is hard to take down and can spread to lots more people. They may be asked to join a club, meet a friend, or make contact with a person who is seeking to develop an inappropriate relationship. Some sites carry propaganda regarding religious and ethnic groups, information on gun availability and other issues which parents may prefer to discuss individually with their children.

What parents can do

Technology and information are the wave of the future and children should be knowledgeable, but parents can make sure they learn to use the new technology in a positive way.

Although studies in the 1990s were concerned about the negative effects of the Internet, it is now seen as having numerous benefits.  It’s up to parents to provide guidance and supervision to make sure their teenagers are reaping the benefits. It is important for parents to monitor the amount of time spent and put computers in a common area of the house.

Parents should become more familiar with how to use the Internet and how technology can strengthen the parent-teen relationship. Playing online games together and jointly planning projects can help parents become aware of the range of Internet capabilities.

Ask your teen to show you his/her online profile. Regularly check your child’s Internet history and phone call/text messaging logs.

Remind kids that anything posted on the internet is accessible to anyone and could be available for years.

Talk about online pornography and direct teens to good sites about health and sexuality.

Remind kids that people on line may not be who they say they are. Teach them about privacy; emphasize that children must never give out personal information about themselves or family members

Teach responsible behavior—file sharing, taking text, or images from the Web may infringe on copyright law. Remind them that not everything they see or read online is true.

By establishing rules parents will enable their children and teens  to reap the considerable benefits available on the Internet.


The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Report on Digital Media and Learning, November 2008

Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2008

Valkenburg, P. and Peter, J. (2009) Social consequences of the Internet for adolescents:  A decade of research.   Current Directions in Psychological Science, l8(l),1-5

USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future, 2008


Date Published: July 14, 2009