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Parents: Can They Deter Teens' Online Risky Behavior?

Benjamin Kornick, 2012 NIDA Addiction Science Award Winner
January 17, 2013

In 5th grade, I was the victim of cyberbullying, when a classmate wrote hurtful instant messages about me. Shortly after, social networking became the rage, and sexting and cyberbullying became more prevalent. When I joined Facebook, I was surprised by what my peers were doing online, with little regard for the social, emotional, and legal consequences of their actions.

This experience led me to work on a number of behavioral science projects, including “OMG: Look Who Joined Facebook! The Relationship between Parenting and Adolescent Risk Behaviors,” as part of my high school’s independent research program. I was particularly interested in ways that parents could minimize the risks teens take online. My study was the first to look at whether the same factors that predict adolescent risk behaviors offline would predict them online. My study looked specifically at the relationship between what parents know about their children’s lives and how that affects adolescent risk behaviors offline and online.

I worked on this project for 2 years, under the guidance of Dr. Allyson Weseley, the coordinator of secondary research at Roslyn High School, and two distinguished experts in the field of psychology: Dr. Larry Rosen and Dr. Loes Keisjers, both of whom provided me guidance by email and video chatting.

Does Parental Involvement Affect Teens’ Online Behavior?

In preparing for my study, I learned that teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors in real life when parents know their whereabouts, activities, and associations. However, few studies examined the relationship between parenting and adolescent risk behaviors online. While it had been reported that our parents try to stay involved in our online lives, they are, for the most part, unaware of what we do on social networking sites.

I hypothesized that adolescents who report high levels of parental involvement and knowledge of their activities would be more likely to report fewer offline and online risky behaviors. I surveyed 133 high school students, from Long Island, New York, by having them complete a 74-item questionnaire.

Friend Your Folks: It May Save You in the End

My findings confirmed that parents learn about their kids in many ways: getting information from their children, their children’s friends, and their friends’ parents; setting limits on where their children can go, what they can do, and with whom; and maintaining a close relationship with their children.

My research also confirmed that adolescents whose parents are informed would be less likely to engage in offline risky behaviors. It is likely that when our parents know more about our lives, they are better able to focus on taking measures to prevent risky behaviors. The research findings indicate that teens who participate in fewer risky behaviors are more likely to share more information with their parents because they have nothing to hide. My findings also suggest that parental prevention only works in situations when parents are close to their children and work to maintain open lines of communication.

Risky Business: Online Versus Offline

It is possible that our parents do not fully appreciate the dangers of various online activities or know how to regulate them. In terms of online risky behaviors, the study results showed that parental knowledge in-and-of-itself was not particularly useful in preventing participation in risky behaviors online. This finding is significant because it highlights differences between parenting in the online world versus the real world.

Offline, teens are limited from participating in various risky behaviors by clear rules set by parents, schools, and governments; yet, when online, adolescents’ activities can go unchecked. Because of the endless freedom social networking can bring to adolescents, parents must take steps to control teens’ activities online as a deterrent. Therefore, parents need to have a good understanding of the online world, as well as a level of comfort on social networking sites.

Given the constantly evolving risks of the online world, this area will continue to need further research, to help identify additional preventive measures by parents to help keep their children safe in both the real and virtual worlds.

Benjamin Kornick is a freshman at Columbia University in New York City. At the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), he competed with more than 1,500 students from around the world and was awarded 1st Place and Best in Category in behavioral sciences. His research was also recognized by the American Psychological Association and NIDA, which awarded him the 2nd place Addiction Science Award. Following ISEF, his research was also recognized in a legislative resolution from the New York State Senate and was recently submitted for publishing in the Journal of Adolescence.

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Well done!

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