Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008
Electronic Media and Parental Influence
In this section we examine parents' role in their adolescents' use of electronic media to communicate with friends and strangers. To start, what do parents know about the various communication forms and their teens' use of them? Although hard data on this question are limited, both adolescents and their parents agree that youth know more about the Internet than their parents do. In the 2001 Pew Report, 64 percent of teens believed that they knew more than their parents about communicating online and 66 percent of their parents agreed. Since that report was issued, the press has reported extensively about the potential dangers of interacting on the Internet, and we suspect parents today are better informed about electronic communication, but they are probably still not as knowledgeable as their teens.
Similarly little research exists about what parents know about their own teens' use of electronic media for communication, including whom they talk to and what information they have on their profiles. One recent survey of parent and teen pairs suggested that the parents were largely in the dark about their teens' MySpace behaviors. Nearly half the parents almost never looked at their teens' MySpace profile and a third had never seen it.81 On a similar note, a large-scale Internet-based survey of teens revealed that 90 percent of the sample did not tell an adult, including parents, about cyberbullying.82 This silence of course makes it impossible for parents to take action against cyberbullying.
Parents can influence their adolescents' use of electronic communication forms in two ways: by monitoring and by limiting access. Monitoring is probably best done by using Internet software that monitors, filters, and blocks access to different kinds of content. Again, no research documents either the extent of parental use of such software or its effectiveness. Limiting access would involve restrictions on where teens go online, the time they spend online, the electronic forms they use (for example, MySpace), and how they use those forms (for example, keeping blogs private, not posting provocative pictures).
One study of parent and teen pairs has revealed that almost half the parents allow their teens to access the Internet in their bedrooms; only a third put limits on MySpace use and a quarter put limits on computer use. Interestingly, parent and teen perceptions about limits did not coincide: fewer teens than parents thought that their parents set limits on their use. Parenting styles were related to their teen's MySpace use. Not only were authoritative parents (parents who are warm, consistently apply standards, and are willing to reason with their children) more likely to have seen their teen's MySpace page, they were also more likely to have set limits on MySpace use and less likely to allow a computer in the bedroom. Their teens, along with those with authoritarian parents (parents who show little warmth, have high standards, and expect strict obedience), were least likely to give out personal information on MySpace.83
Qualitative evidence is starting to accumulate that social networking sites such as MySpace are causing serious parent-child conflicts and loss of parental control.84 Rosen's interviews with parents revealed several typical problems. For example, a boy who failed to do his homework before midnight because he was on MySpace reacted to his parents' efforts to curtail his use of MySpace by sneaking back online. And a girl posted information about her sweet sixteen party on MySpace, leading so many teens to crash the party and cause so many problems that her father had to call the police.85
Overall it appears that despite their concerns about their teen's online activities, parents may not know much about them and may not be effective at setting limits and monitoring their activities. More research is needed to determine whether the problem is parents' lack of knowledge about these communication forms or their lack of parenting skills. It would be interesting to find out whether parents are similarly uninformed about their teens' offline activities, particularly their offline social interactions.
Parent-child conflict about adolescents' media use is another topic needing further research. What is the extent of such conflict? Are these conflicts similar to conflicts in other areas such as sex, alcohol, and curfews? Are they similar to or different from conflicts of earlier generations? Although evidence is starting to accumulate that social networking is causing parent-child conflict and perceived loss of parental control, no research has been done on how to reduce the conflict and restore parental influence. In this void, Rosen's analysis of parenting research in other situations, as well as his list of Internet sites offering advice to parents on this topic, can be of value to parents seeking guidance.86 Most important, we urge researchers to fill this void both with rigorous studies about whether social networking impairs parent-child relations and with intervention studies designed to restore a healthy balance between peer and family interaction.