I came across a surprising headline recently: "US parents largely unaware of what their children do online, research finds." The article covered a recent study that highlighted the differences between how parents see their teens' internet use and how the teens themselves see it.

The parents of America’s digitally literate teenagers are largely in the dark about their children’s internet activity, new research has shown.

The new study on teen internet use by the National Cyber Security Alliance found that only 13% of teens thought their parents understood the extent of their internet use.

The survey of 804 online teens and 810 parents of teens found that 60% of teens have created accounts for apps or social media sites without their parents’ knowledge. Only 28% of parents thought their teens had accounts they didn’t know about.

The gap between what teens are doing and what their parents know about is indicative of what the NCSA is calling a “digital disconnect between American teens and parents”.

Courtesy of Stay Safe Online

A friend (who also happens to be a clinical psychologist) confirmed that she sees this in her practice all the time. Kids come in with their parents to talk about cyberbullying or online friendship difficulties. When she sits down with the parents, they tell her they've talked about their "house rules" for texting and social media posting, communicating their values surrounding internet and social media use. Then it's the kids turn to talk—and they tell a very different story.

The study found that 67% of parents said their children were required to report online incidents that made them scared or uncomfortable, but only 32% of teens reported that their parents had imposed such a rule.

Courtesy of Stay Safe Online

“It’s one thing to say: ‘My parents have a rule but I don’t follow it’,” remarked Michael Kaiser, executive director of NCSA [National Cyber Security Alliance]. “It’s another to have young people saying that those rules don’t even exist.”

Maybe parents' words are falling on deaf ears. Or perhaps parents only think they're talking about the topic regularly and clearly enough for their kids to internalize it.

In any case, it's obvious that the message is not getting through. We need to do better.

How to (really) talk to your kids about good digital habits

I spend time every week thinking about kids and technology. I've used Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Kik—and a handful of other social media apps you've likely never heard of (Yellow, anyone? Or Peach?).

The point is that I spend a good deal of personal and professional energy thinking about these things and I AM STILL NOT DOING EVERYTHING RIGHT. By setting our minds—and committing our energy—to it, we can all learn something new or get better at something we're not yet successful at.

If you're ready to up your parenting game, here are some ways to bridge the digital disconnect between you and your kids:

  • Give them a chance to teach you. Every kid I know is more internet saavy than any parent I know. So start by asking your kid to tell you what he thinks you should be worried about. Then follow up: learn about the app he says all the kids are using, ask about the friend who's pushing the boundaries of online decency. Once you know where the hidden landmines are, keep a consistent eye on them.

  • Take away the threat of consequences for the duration of the conversation. Kids are (rightly) afraid that if they admit to doing something silly or stupid online, the consequences will be loss of their favorite device, app, or game. So make it clear that today's conversation is intended to open up a discussion about possible pitfalls they've encountered online. Then issue them a temporary digital Get Out of Jail Free card. You may lose the opportunity to issue meaningful consequences this time—but the benefits of knowing what to watch out for in the future are worth it.

  • "What are your friends doing that you worry might get them into hot water?" Let kids talk about their friends' online hijinks, and you'll likely get an excellent look at where any potential trouble might be lurking for your own kids. The trick here is to make sure you don't later use this information against your kids—so don't trap them into revealing something about a friend and then immediately call that friend's mom to share the details. The end goal is to build an open and honest environment around these conversations. That will only happen if you prove to your kids that they can trust you—just like you want to be able to trust them. (Here's a good argument for why it's important to keep kids' trust.)

  • Do the unexpected. Get a Snapchat account. Go on—it's free, it's easy, and it's not nearly as scary as you think it is. It's also not the sort of platform where your kids will be worried about you "following" them. It's predominantly used by teens to communicate one-on-one. So instead of asking your teen for their Snapchat Username so you can stalk them online, use it to send them a snap. (Just make sure you send your first message when they're at home—so they won't have to admit to their friends that they just got a snap from their mom. How embarrassing!) It's also a terrific (and light-hearted) way to send the message that you're paying attention—to your kid and to all the ways they communicate with the meaningful people in their lives.

Finally, remember:

It’s not about the technology itself. It’s about how you use it. A car can drive multiples of the speed limit. You have to teach them to drive well.

Michael Kaiser, executive director of NCSA