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“My Kid Doesn’t Do That!”
Teens’ Actual Use of the Internet vs. Parents’ Perceptions
An article from David R. Smith at TheSource4YM.com
9/4/2009

The Internet. It’s how teens meet friends, make plans, entertain themselves, do homework, and in some cases, attend school. It’s also where many teens view porn, illegally download media, cheat academically, and upload questionable pics/videos of themselves and friends.

The question is, do parents know all this?

A Generational Disconnect
Most adults use the Internet for relatively boring activities: work, research, retail price comparisons, and forwarding the latest (and completely untrue) rumor about some government conspiracy. For us, the Internet serves some kind of functional purpose. It’s there, we use it – and appreciate it – but for the most part, our identity isn’t wrapped up in an online lifestyle.

Comparatively, teenagers have a love affair with the Internet, especially online social networks. In some cases, social status rests on whether or not a kid has seen the latest viral video. For them, the Internet puts the world at their fingertips. We’ve all seen teenagers huddled around a laptop looking at pictures they’ve posted of themselves from prom or some other social event. And we’ve witnessed them chatting, surfing, listening to music, and researching a school project… all at the same time.

It’s as if this generation of teenagers exited the womb with an IM profile and a Facebook account.


Though teenagers’ use of the Internet is rampant, it’s not always good. For instance, it’s been known for some time that kids struggle in maintaining their values online. Parents and youth workers need to be aware of how kids spend their time online, or they’ll remain “clueless” of their kids’ use of the Internet. And when that happens, trouble usually follows.

Unable to Make Connection
The great divide between kids’ use of social networks and parent’s perceptions of the same is propelled largely because many parents are simply unaware of how often teens use them. Perhaps most telling is the fact that 12% of teens with a Facebook and/or MySpace profile admit their parents don't even know about the account's existence. That finding comes from Common Sense Media's latest report which also claims only 23% of parents say their child checks an online profile daily when a whopping 51% of them do.

Here are some more of their key findings that reveal the staggering disconnect:

  • 54% of teens admitted to complaining about or making fun of a teacher online, though only 29% of parents thought their kids had.

  • 39% of teens confessed regret over posting something online, while just 20% of parents assumed their children would.

  • 23% of students acknowledged downloading/sharing files illegally, but only 10% of parents thought their kids had.

  • 24% of kids admitted they had signed into someone else’s social network account or profile without permission, even though a mere 4% of parents thought their child was capable of such activity.

Restating the problem in another way is the software company OnlineFamily.Norton. They recently chimed into the conversation with more disturbing news. According to research on tracked users of their software, “Kids have been surfing the Net for ‘Facebook’ and ‘MySpace’ almost as much as the keywords ‘sex’ and ‘porn.’”

That’s right. The Top Ten list of most-searched subjects looks like this:

  1. YouTube

  2. Google

  3. Facebook

  4. Sex

  5. MySpace

  6. Porn

  7. Yahoo

  8. Michael Jackson

  9. Fred (A sometimes funny – full time annoying character performed by the real life Lucas Cruikshank.)

  10. eBay

Their full article highlights some interesting trends in online activity. And you can see the list of Top 100 searches here.

Establishing Connection
If you’re thinking we’d be better off as a civilization without the Internet, let me remind you of the hassle we used to go through in determining the best route to the Grand Canyon for family vacations prior to the advent of Yahoo Maps. Nobody wants to go back to that! Further, not everything about the Internet is “evil.” In fact, tons of education is being gained by kids in an online environment, and according to several years of study, “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

These mixed uses of the Internet should caution us against throwing the baby out with the bath water. But how do we protect our kids from all the dangers and immorality that’s available online, while taking full advantage of the greatest invention of the technological revolution?

  1. Realize we have two worlds to parent in now, the real one, and a virtual one. It’s absolutely crucial that our presence is felt in both. In this age, going to our kids’ games and recitals isn’t enough; we have to show up in their online lives, as well. Someone has to be there to govern the almost limitless forms of media that can be accessed online. With so many relationships that are forged online, it’s important for teenagers to get our input. Then, of course, there are the intentional landmines on the Internet, like pornography, that must be navigated. We must stay informed, because what we don’t know could hurt our kids.


  2. Teach teenagers about the intersection of the real world and the virtual world. It has the potential to be a deadly one if handled irresponsibly. Teenagers need to know that the values, morals, spiritual truths, and common sense that we teach them face-to-face can – and should – apply in their (huge) online identity. Here’s a helpful resource to teach kids about the need to be authentic while online.

It’s fair to say that a lot of the parents from the survey quoted above were more than a little surprised to find out their kids’ actual use of the Internet. Let’s learn a valuable lesson from their mistake(s) so our teenagers can be spared the pain so many others have faced.


David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org. David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.



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