Parents who very closely monitor their children’s Internet use in an attempt to reduce unsafe online behavior may actually be achieving the opposite effect, according to a new study conducted by University of Haifa researchers. “It seems that during adolescence, during which teens are seeking ways to achieve autonomy, overly restrictive monitoring actually motivates them to seek ways to circumvent the supervision,” say the researchers.
The concern of many parents regarding their children’s online habits tend to relate to hazardous behaviors, ranging from the disclosure of personal information on public forums and revealing feelings to strangers, to face-to-face meetings with strangers. Parents, naturally, want to prevent such precarious behaviors to the degree possible without infringing on their teens’ feeling of independence.
This study, conducted by Prof. Gustavo Mesch and doctoral student Hagit Sasson at the University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, examined parental efforts to cope with their children’s Internet use on the one hand and compared them to the teenagers’ perception of their peer group’s social norms.
Parental efforts were divided into three categories: Mediation through supervision, which includes the installation of software that blocks sites, records which sites were visited, or limits the amount of time spent online; mediation through guidance, in which parents attempted to explain the risks posed by the Internet, provided help in using the Internet, suggested ways to use the Internet safely, and helped their children when something bothered them online; and non-intervention. The study included 495 children aged 10-18.
Surprisingly, the more aggressive “supervision” approach led to the most negative results: The more parents used this approach, the more their children would engage in risky online behavior. There was no link, positive or negative, between the other two approaches and risky Internet use.
It was also found that in families that were cohesive and demonstrated strong emotional bonding, adolescents were less likely to engage in risky Internet behavior.“These are not exactly two sides of the same coin, but the patterns are certainly clear,” the researchers note. “Supervisory behavior, which can be linked to a lack of trust in the child, will lead to an increase in unsafe behavior. In contrast, as has been found by other studies, families that knew how to establish a relationship of trust among family members reduced risky behavior.”
A perhaps less surprising finding was that the strongest influence on risky online behavior was what the adolescents’ friends thought of such behavior. The more the kids thought that their friends approved of precarious online behavior, the more they themselves would engage in such behavior. “It’s possible that this is an example of self-persuasion,” the researchers say. “Someone who behaves dangerously online is liable to convince himself that as far as his friends are concerned, it’s okay.”
Similar to previous studies, the researchers found that boys are more likely to be involved in risky online behavior than girls. They also found that more boys than girls visited chat rooms and online forums, which increased the chances of them being exposed to online threats since these are platforms that invite interaction with strangers. The only gender-based difference noticed with regard to parental behavior was that parents were more likely to mediate their daughters’ Internet use with guidance than their sons’.