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April 2006
What are Teens Doing Online Anyway?

by Annie Fox, M.Ed.

"You’re not going to parent your kids effectively in the 21st century if you’re uneducated about the role digital technology plays in their lives."
63% of American households currently have Internet connections. Since 100% of Parent Forum readers are linked up, it’s a safe bet that your daughters and sons regularly chat online with friends and with people they’ve never met. Social time online can be very positive and very healthy. But parents also need to know the potential risks their kids face when they use the Internet. That’s the only way we can teach them to be more savvy.

The InSiteI’ve logged thousands of hours on the Net with kids starting in 1997 when David and I launched an online teen community that was part of Talk City. We produced 14 hours a day of hosted, moderated, topical chat for teens — providing them with online access to exceptional educators, counselors, and mentors. Young people from around the world packed our chat rooms to participate in live conversations about body image, chemical dependency, relationships, social justice issues, etc. One of my favorite chats was “Making the Peace — Eliminating Racism” run by community activists from Todos Institute (read these chat transcripts here and here). This ongoing event provided kids with a safe place to talk openly about prejudice in a venue where everyone was anonymous and invisible. Read some of the other archived transcripts and you’ll marvel at the quality of the interaction between the kids and the guest speakers. These online forums had a very positive impact on the participants.

I remember a 14-year-old girl who logged on to a chat about abusive relationships. She was in a sexual relationship with her town’s 35-year-old preacher and in desperate need of advice. While I had her online I called a crisis counselor at Marin Abused Women’s Services on the phone. Together the counselor and I gave the girl the courage and the plan she needed to end the abusive relationship. Two weeks later I received a lovely thank-you letter from that girl (she lived in Scotland!). She was free of the predator and feeling happy and safe again. I was so grateful that the Internet existed and that our chat room was there for her.

Very surprised boyOf course less positive interactions can happen online as well—kids stumble on disgusting websites, adult pedophiles troll chat rooms posing as teens, young cyberbullies hurt and humiliate other kids, and much more. That’s the reality of the beast. But from my perspective, the potential for good far outweighs the potential for a negative experience. Our kids are incredibly fortunate to have access to all the educational, entertainment, and social resources offered by today’s digital technology. Like any tool, though, they need to know how to use it appropriately. Your guidance is essential.

Start educating yourself with these Cyber Safety Resources. This list of websites cover essential information for teens and parents about potential dangers of online use. Also provided is information about filtering software (programs that enable you to block access to undesirable websites).

Basic tips for protecting your kids online:

  1. Set up Internet-linked computers in “family space” — Adolescents deserve some privacy and to know that you trust them. However, a computer in the family room sends a message to your child that you’re there for support. With you nearby (not looking over his/her shoulder) your child will feel less threatened and isolated if they’re dealing with unwanted content. You’ll also be in a better position to monitor what’s coming into and being sent from your home.
  2. Get them to teach you — Get over whatever resistance you may have to learning the ins and out of IMs, texting, chatting, message boards, etc. Ask for a tutorial from your child. Show them with an open mind and an open heart that you really want to know about this part of their world. Make sure they don’t feel like you’re “spying” because you’re not! You’re just trying to do your job. You’re not going to parent your kids effectively in the 21st century if you’re uneducated about the role digital technology plays in their lives.
What??!?! "…if you feel like your kids spend too much time online and/or on the phone, they probably do."
  1. Know about their websites — Millions of underage kids have created personalized websites on places like I’m sure that a vast majority of their parents know nothing about them. Ask your son/daughter to show you their websites. If they seem reluctant, that may be a sign that they’re hiding something they don’t feel really proud of. If that’s what you’re picking up, then talk about it (calmly) and see if it’s really just “private” (as in, “I use my site to talk to my friends about people we like and stuff.”) or is there something less innocent posted there. If you find that your son/daughter has posted inappropriate content (sexy photos of themselves, provocative “profiles,” personal information, etc.) then you need to talk to them about it. It might help to ask them: “Would you put this photo and your contact information on a billboard overlooking the freeway?” (Of course not, Dad! that would be stupid.) “Well, this is the same kind of public space. Posting personal information online is much worse than a billboard. It’s seen by millions of people!” (Your teens probably never thought of it that way, but they need to.)
  2. NetiquetteEducate your kids about Netiquette (appropriate online behavior). Don’t assume that their technology smarts automatically translate into knowing the appropriate social use of digital technology. They are adolescents. By definition that means they’re socially and psychologically immature. Create some family rules about Internet use and write them down. These rules should include the obvious ones (obvious to parents but not always obvious to kids) like:
    • Never give out personal information to people you meet online.
    • Never arrange to meet with anyone you’ve met online.
    • Be as polite and respectful to people online as you are in the real world. Anonymity doesn’t give you a license to be rude and obnoxious.
    • Don’t respond to messages that make you feel uncomfortable.

    Discuss the importance of each rule so there’s absolutely no ambiguity about where you stand and what you expect from them.Talk about what consequences if rules are broken. Parents and kids should sign the contract to make it official “family policy,” then post it near the computer.

  3. UnpluggedTake a break. Lots of kids wind down while chatting with friends (no different from adults in that way). But if you feel like your kids spend too much time online and/or on the phone, they probably do. Seriously consider limiting non-school use of the Internet and scheduling family times when digital distractions are not allowed. (That includes your email and your cell phone too!) Downtime with the family helps everyone relax, regroup, and reconnect.

Finally, here’s a multiple choice question for you:

The Internet contains _______.

  1. music from around the world
  2. educational content representing every field of study
  3. foreign language tutorials
  4. instructions for “how to” do anything
  5. great literature
  6. incredible art and photography
  7. the “history of” everything
  8. up to the nanosecond news coverage
  9. fascinating blogs
  10. lies, nastiness, and websites unfit for human consumption
  11. All of the above

Answer: K, of course. So where does that leave us? With zillions of options. But no need to panic. Educate yourself so you can educate your kids. Because even though some of what’s online is vile garbage, with your guidance, supervision, and clearly stated expectations, your kids can learn safe, ethical Internet use and gain tremendously from it.

In friendship,



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