News flash! Online teens actually heed parents’ advice

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

by Larry Magid

A study released last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project had what might be surprising news about online teens. They actually listen to parental advice.

The big take-away from the report, “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites” was that 69 percent of American teens who use social media say people their age “are mostly kind to one another on social network sites.” Deeper into the report, you’ll find that 86 percent of teens report getting advice from a parent, and 70 percent say they’ve received online safety advice from a teacher or “another adult at school. Almost half the teens say they’ve received advice from siblings and relatives and about 54 percent say they’ve gotten it from television, radio, newspapers or magazines.

The study, which interviewed 799 teens and their parents earlier this year, was sponsored by the Family Online Safety Institute and Cable in the Classroom.

Despite the fact that nearly all of the teens surveyed were wired into social media and mobile devices, just over a third said they have gotten safety advice from websites and only 21 percent from Internet and mobile phone service providers. Four out of six kids had received advice from other adults, such as youth leaders, clergy and coaches.

It was also heartening to read that younger teens are more likely to receive advice from older siblings, along with other relatives and librarians and that “for teens of all ages nd genders, parents are the most commonly mentioned source for advice about online safety.”

The survey didn’t ask whether this advice was sought out, appreciated or effective. But it did probe into whether kids looked for advice after witnessing meanness or online cruelty. More than a third who have seen others be mean or cruel on a social network site said they looked for advice on what to do. More than half the girls looked for advice compared to 20 percent of boys.

Teens who have been bullied themselves were even more likely to seek out help. Of this group, 56 percent reached out for advice compared to the 30 percent of teens who had not been bullied.

It’s encouraging to note that 92 percent of the teens who asked for advice on how to handle online cruelty said the advice was helpful.

Nearly six in 10 said parents have the greatest influence. The study found some differences based on income and ethnicity, but what I found most telling is that parents who are themselves Internet users are more likely to serve as a teen’s biggest influence. That certainly confirms advice that I’ve been giving for years — that parents need to go online and learn firsthand about the types of media their kids use.

This research tracks with other studies about parental influence. Several studies have shown that kids, including teenagers, do listen to what their parents say and pay attention to what their parents do. Even college students, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, are influenced by parental involvement.

But in order to be effective, advice from parents or any other adults also has to be accurate and actionable. Michigan State professor Kim Witte’s Extended Parallel Process Model is mostly designed to measure how people respond to fear messages, but it can also be applied to other forms of advice. What she found is that effectiveness of messaging depends on the “assessment of the threat and their perceived efficacy.” In other words, people tend to ignore warnings that don’t resonate with their perception of reality and they won’t take advice that doesn’t lead to actions likely to have an impact.

Much of this research is based on behavioral issues like smoking cessation, but it can also apply to online behavior. Giving advice that makes little sense to kids is likely to go nowhere. For example, much of the advice designed to keep kids out of the hands of Internet predators was largely ignored because the kids’ own experience correctly belied the perceived threats.

A few years ago, the media was filled with stories about teens being harmed by online strangers, even though research and the actual experience of the vast majority of teens failed to back up those fears. There is also widespread belief that putting personal information or even photos online can lead to danger, but millions of kids do that everyday and never hear about cases of kids they know having been harmed as a result.

While bullying can be extremely hurtful, 85 percent of teens questioned in this Pew study say that no one has been mean or cruel to them online in the past 12 months, and most don’t bully others. And despite some media reports of widespread “sexting,” only 2 percent of teens say they have ever sent a nude or sexually suggestive picture or video of themselves to others.

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