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Berkman Center Study Explores Parents' Concerns About Children's Online Activity

By David Steinbach, Contributing Writer

A survey of 802 households revealed that parents are largely aware of the dangers and consequences that could arise from their children’s unregulated access to social media.

The survey, which was part of a study that culminated in a report entitled “Parents, Teens, and Online Privacy,” was conducted by researchers at the Pew Internet Project in collaboration with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

“Most parents of teenagers are concerned about what their teenage children do online and how their behavior could be monitored by others,” the study reads. “Some parents are taking steps to observe, discuss, and check up on their children’s digital footprints.”

According to the study, most parents are concerned with the collection of web histories in order to create targeted advertising. Eighty-one percent of surveyed parents listed this as a concern, while 72 percent were worried about the potential for their children to interact with strangers online, and 69 percent were troubled by the possibility of their childrens’ online behavior negatively affecting their futures.

“Although parental anxiety over children’s technology use is nothing new, it was striking for us to see the degree to which concerns about advertisers’ data collection outweighed other concerns, such as interaction with strangers online,” said Mary Madden, one of the study’s authors.

In most of these categories, parents of younger teens of ages 12-13 were more concerned, especially with regard to interactions with strangers. Middle-income families showed more sensitivity to issues that could affect their child’s future opportunities, such as reputation, than did higher- or lower-income families.

Parents have taken a variety of steps to address their concerns about their children's online habits and behavior, including becoming more active online themselves. According to the study, 66 percent of parents of children ages 12-17 use a social networking site such as Facebook—up from 58 percent in a similar study conducted last year—and 80 percent of these parent users are “friends” with their children.

“We live in a quicksilver tech environment, and user behavior in the digital age is relatively fluid, too,” said Sandra Cortesi, one of the report’s authors and a fellow at the Berkman Center. “Actually, I would be surprised if the numbers would not change over time.”

In addition to increasing their online activity, concerned parents have employed different techniques such as educational discussions, privacy settings, or parental controls.

The paper is the first in what the researchers anticipate will be a collection of studies on youth privacy issues with the goal of gaining a broader understanding of teenage online behavior and helping inform government policy in an age where personal information is readily collected.

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