Watching Out For the Web

The intense coverage of teenage congressional pages receiving "overfriendly" e-mails and sexually charged online instant messages from suddenly retired Congressman Mark Foley have underlined some serious, ongoing parental fears about teenagers and the lives they lead on the computer. What are they seeing, writing, and doing?

We know today's teenagers are fluent in the latest communications technologies, often using them all at once. But when someone quantifies that knowledge with actual numbers, the results are eye-opening. The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that 15- to 18-year-olds average nearly six and a half hours a day watching TV, playing video games, and surfing the Internet, and a quarter of that time, they're doing more than one at the same time. The biggest increase in their activity was computer use for "social networking," which has risen nearly threefold since 2000, to one hour and 22 minutes a day on average.

It is why parents should carry around a satchel of anxiety that they're always behind the curve on this networking. A 2005 survey organized by Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) found that over half of parents either do not have or do not know if they have software on their computers that monitors where their teenagers go online and with whom they interact. Forty-two percent readily admit they do not review the content of what their teenagers read and/or type in chat rooms or instant messages. I suspect many more see bits and pieces of these communications, and trust their teens with the rest. Billions of instant messages bounce through cyberspace each day.

Parents often don't get the online lingo. Fifty-seven percent of the parents surveyed didn't know one of the most commonly used instant-message abbreviations, LOL (Laughing Out Loud), and 95 percent of parents couldn't identify the lingo children use to alert people their parents are watching, like P911 or POS (Parent Over Shoulder).

In May, Cox and the NCMEC issued another study on the teenager side of the ledger, which really puts teen Internet usage and networking into focus. Sixty-one percent of 13- to 17-year olds surveyed said they have a personal profile on a site such as MySpace, or Friendster, or Xanga. Countless news stories have warned of the very real dangers, yet half of these surveyed teens said they've posted pictures of themselves online. Older teens and girls especially use the Internet for social purposes. Many are attracted to online communities organized around their interests, such as skateboarding, Japanese anime, video gaming, or rock star fan clubs.

Most teens say they have also been directly confronted by the risks. Fully 71 percent acknowledged receiving messages online from people they don't know; 45 percent have been asked personal information from a stranger; 30 percent have considered meeting someone that they've only talked to online, and 14 percent have actually met a person face-to-face they only met online. A sizable minority (40 percent) said they will usually reply and chat to people when they received online messages from someone they don't know. Only 18 percent said they'd tell an adult. For every child, there's a danger in a false sense of security about strangers on the web, especially when people are generally bolder and more outgoing online than they might be in a real-life situation.

Many online teen communities offer warnings not to share personal information, explicitly declare rules against inappropriate behavior, and urge users to report to them on anything fishy. But that won't prevent every potentially dangerous encounter from occurring.

Fortunately, parents have been scared enough by news reports and other warnings to talk to children about these Internet risks. While 33 percent of those 13- to 17-year-olds (and 48 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds) say their parents know "very little" or "nothing" about what they do on the computer, 70 percent say their parents have discussed online dangers with them in the last year, and 36 percent, especially younger teens and girls, report their parents have discussed Internet safety "a lot" with them.

The bottom line is this. In most media-and-parenting issues, we can blame a corporate culture that values profit over decency. On the Internet, there is a very real danger from individual predators who know how to go around all the elaborate and laudable roadblocks that corporate websites put up to protect children. They can lurk in the electronic shadows on chat rooms about toys for grade-schoolers. They can be anywhere children engage the World Wide Web.

Parents fear for their children because they are young and innocent, even oblivious to the danger and sickness of sex criminals in our midst. Every parent must know one thing. Don't leave your child alone with the Internet.