Parents often fear technology. They worry that their children might be exposed to inappropriate pornographic or violent content online, or be negatively influenced or explicitly hurt by a stranger through social media. After hearing news coverage of horrific events, parents also fret that their kids might be bullied or bully someone else using digital tools.
Both federal and state governments are proposing interventions to address the real or imagined plague of Internet safety issues. For example, numerous states are considering or have passed bills that would target cyberbullying specifically, while members of Congress are seeking to address privacy concerns by restricting how youth can interact with sites that collect user information. But are such moves addressing risks that youth actually face? Whose concerns are they addressing?
To get a sense for parental concerns and experiences, we conducted a nationally representative survey of U.S. parents and guardians with children 10-14 in their household. Analyzing responses from just over 1,000 parents, we found significant variation among them. Results showed that parental concerns vary significantly by background — notably race and ethnicity, income, metropolitan status and political ideology. For example, black, Hispanic and Asian parents are much more concerned than whites about certain online safety matters, even when controlling for socioeconomic factors and previous experiences with the various safety issues.
Lower socioeconomic parents were more likely to express concern about their children being bullied or becoming a bully. Asian-American parents had the highest fear about most online safety issues, followed closely by Hispanics. Urban parents were more concerned than both suburban and rural parents about every online safety issue we explored.
How political ideology influences concern depends on the specific online safety issue. Liberal parents were least concerned about their children meeting a stranger while moderates were the most, with conservatives in between. Liberals were also the least concerned about exposure to pornography — here conservative parents expressed the highest level fear. Conservatives were least concerned, however, about their children becoming a bullying victim or a bully.
We also inquired about previous experiences any of their children may have had with the issues: meeting a stranger, being exposed to violent content or pornography, and being bullied or being a bully. On the whole, very few people reported that they faced any of these problems. The most common safety issue that parents reported was exposure to pornography — but less than 19 percent reported having had experienced it.
Overall, our findings suggest that parental concerns don't seem to match up with their lived experiences when it comes to meeting a stranger and exposure to violent content. They are especially worried about the possibility that a stranger will hurt their child, reflecting the pervasive anxiety about online sexual predators. Yet while such encounters are extraordinarily rare, the potential consequences of such an encounter are unthinkable. Still, the salience of parental fear about strangers in our data raises significant questions. Are parents especially afraid of strangers because this risk is particularly horrific? Or does their fear stem from the pervasive stranger-danger moral panics that have targeted social media as culprits, leading to the false impression that they are more common than they are?
How parents incorporate concerns into their parenting practices affects their children's activities and behavior, drives technological development in the online safety arena, and shapes public discourse and policy. When parents are afraid, they may restrict access to technologies in an effort to protect their children from perceived dangers. Yet the efficacy of such restrictions is unclear. If fear-driven protective measures do little to curtail actual risk, then these actions are doing a huge disservice to children, and by extension society as a whole. The Internet is a part of contemporary public life. Engagement with technology is key to helping youth understand the world around them.
While differences in cultural experiences may help explain some of our findings about parental concerns regarding children's online safety issues, the results raise serious questions. Are certain parents more concerned because they have a higher level of distrust for technology? Are they bothered because they feel as though there are fewer societal protections for their children? Is it that they feel less empowered as parents? We don't know, as very little research has looked at these issues. Still, our findings challenge policy-makers to think about the diversity of perspectives their law-making should address.
Danah Boyd is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and author of "It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens."
Eszter Hargittai is Delaney Family Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, where she heads the Web Use Project.
© Foreign Policy 2013