Study: Teens don’t tell parents about shady online activity over fear of ‘freak outs’

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — If your teen doesn’t talk to you about what they see online, you’re not alone, a new study finds.

Researchers at Penn State conducted an experiment with 136 individuals  structured as 68 groups of teen-parent duos  over the course of eight weeks. Each participant filled out a pre-survey, post-survey, and weekly diary entries over the course of the study.

Parents and teens were expected to report whether they had experienced what were deemed “online risks” in any of four categories: online harassment and bullying, personal data breaches, sexual advances and solicitations, or exposure to explicit content.

teen online
A new study finds that teens want their parents to guide them when it comes to risky online behavior, but fear an over-emotional response.

What the researchers found was that teens rarely talked about their risky experiences with their parents over fear of a “freak out” — a breakdown that may inhibit parents from teaching their children how to protect themselves on the internet.

Moreover, teens are significantly less likely than their parents to perceive a situation or experience as “risky,” likely leading to an even larger disconnect.

“Teens tended to be more nonchalant and say that the incident made them embarrassed, while parents, even though they were reporting more low-risk events, emoted much stronger feelings,” explains Pamela Wisniewski, one of the study’s lead researchers, in a university release.

Due to the potential blowback from parents, many teens would rather avoid bringing up an adverse experience that they considered to be trivial, the study suggests. Wisniewski emphasizes how the team found that “when teens actually talked to their parents about what had happened… [they] were trying to open lines of communication.”

Researchers found it’s particularly important for parents not to dismiss their teen’s reporting of a risky situation, because for every situation broached, there are likely a handful of iffy situations that were never brought up.

Ultimately, the study unveiled a number of reporting behaviors: the parent and teen reporting on the same issue, only the parent reporting an issue, and only the teen reporting an issue.

The researchers presented their findings at an Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) conference in February 2017.