Under the Hood

Preventing Teens From Going Online May Not Shield Them From Cyber Bullying, Sex

smartphone
The vast majority of teens today are online, and a good chunk of them own smartphones, so forbidding them from being on the Internet may not be the best way to prevent online risks. Pixabay, public domain

Grounding your kids may seem like a reasonable temporary solution, but forbidding them from doing certain things is likely to just make them want to do it more. That’s the notion behind a new study out of Penn State University, which argues that forcing teens to be abstinent from the internet doesn’t necessarily protect them from the risks associated with being online. Rather, allowing them to build their own coping strategies is a more sustainable approach.

Teens — especially young women — are at a higher risk of being negatively influenced online. In addition to risks like sexual harassment, teen girls have a higher risk of being cyberbullied, according to another recent study. With that in mind, the researchers wanted to investigate the best ways to approach a teen’s relationship with the online world, and whether forcing abstinence was the most effective route.

In the study, the researchers examined 68 teens, all between the ages of 13 and 17, who used the internet over the course of two months. They analyzed the participants’ web-based diaries, and had them report on risky internet encounters. Of 207 reported events, there were 29 sexual advancements, 28 incidents of harassment/cyberbullying, 31 reports of personal information breach, and 119 reports of exposure to explicit content. But it turned out that most teens were able to handle the situations on their own — and they reported not seeing much of a difference between online risks and other daily life risks.

At this point in time, with Snapchat, Instagram, and smartphones pervasive in our lives, it would be nearly impossible to bar a young person from the internet. And the Pew Internet Project found that 95 percent of all teens aged 12-17 are online, and a good chunk of them own smartphones. With that in mind, the authors argue, perhaps it’s time to switch the focus from making parental rules to helping teens build their own strategies.

“Focusing on the more positive interactions dealing with online risk flips this debate on its head and turns the conversation from one of parents trying to keep their teens safe to maybe there’s more we can do to teach teens how to keep themselves safe,” said Pamela Wisniewski, assistant professor in computer science at the University of Central Florida and an author of the study, in a statement. “As adults we see these online situations as problems, as negative risk experiences, but teens see them as par-for-the-course experiences.”

The best way to help teens build these coping strategies, Wisniewski said, is to expose them to low- or moderate-risk scenarios in which they can deal with things on their own, and gradually builds resilience. This is better than completely forbidding them from online risks, which would likely leave them unprepared if they were to come across something later on.

“In the past, we tended to focus on the higher risk events, not the medium risk events, but I think there’s a missed opportunity for learning some of the coping strategies that teens use in lower risk situations,” Wisniewski said. “So, if they are exposed to a higher risk event, they may be able to exercise some of the skills they already learned.”

Source: Wisniewski P, et al. ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2016.

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