What Your Kids are REALLY Doing Online

A guide to understanding what your kid is really doing online.

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In seventh grade my best friend, Shannan, and I would put on dance shows for each other and pretend we were married to members of Duran Duran. Today your average middle-schooler is Snapchatting with her crush, posting selfies on Instagram and watching TV shows with jaw-dropping plots—all at the same time—whether you know it or not. While staying on top of your media-savvy kid is harder than keeping up with the Kardashians, the good news is that it’s worth it. “More than 15 years of research shows that when it comes to decisions about sex, for example, parents are the most powerful influence on their teens, even more than TV or kids’ peers,” says Marisa Nightingale, senior media advisor for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. We mined exclusive new survey data on teens and social media from The National Campaign, analyzed the latest studies and interviewed top experts on TV, Twitter and more to help you boost your digital IQ. Here’s what’s happening online—and some advice on the most important conversations you’ll ever have offline.

What Teens Say
"It’s TMI when she talks about her own life, but when my mom kept it on-screen by explaining something sexual that happened in a movie, it was helpful.”
—Noa, 14, Tulsa, OK*

“Parents try to talk to you about sex in high school—which is way too late. The younger, the better. In middle school you encounter kids of all different ages—and experiences.”
—Romalous, 17, Jacksonville, FL

“My parents and I had a talk after we watched a news story about a girl getting fired for an inappropriate Facebook post from her younger days.”
—Shreyas, 14, Aston, PA

Fact: 53% of teen girls say their parents have talked with them about a real-life sexual situation because of something that happened on a TV show they watched together. One-third said Mom or Dad did so after they saw a show separately.

For more conversation starters, tips for managing social media and advice from real teens check out these blog posts:

 3 Smart Ways to Start "The Talk" with Your Teen. Today.

How to Pass On Relationship Values to Your Kids

What I Learned About the "Sex Talk" from Watching "Gossip Girl"

Watching Your Kids' Social Media Presence

Unless otherwise noted, data presented here are drawn from an online survey of 1,000 teen girls ages 13 to 16 conducted for The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in March 2015 by Penn Schoen Berland, a global communications firm. The margin of error for total respondents is +/–3.1% at the 95% confidence level. *Quotes are from a discussion held exclusively for Family Covers by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy with the members of its Youth Leadership Team. For more information, visit thenationalcampaign.org.


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Fact: 52% of teen girls follow their favorite TV shows on Twitter while they're airing.

While it would be great if you had time to watch all six seasons of Pretty Little Liars so you could get the whole who-killed-Bethany thing, you’ve got a household to run. But you can still help your kids navigate the sometimes racy waters of their favorite TV shows. Experts suggest that if you can catch a snippet of a scene, together or apart, ask questions like “Who do you think the group would be better off without on The Walking Dead?” (That’s Nielsen’s #1 cable show for 12- to 17-year-olds, by the way.) If you follow shows on Twitter or Facebook, ask about plot twists and surprises this way: “So what did you think of Lady Gaga’s debut on American Horror Story?” (That shockfest is #5 for the same demo.)

Social Media Cheat Sheet

You, your friends and even your aunt Helene are Facebook addicts. Your kid has a much broader world (wide web) view. Many teens today go beyond the blue banner to immerse themselves in these most-used sites.

Instagram You snap a picture and post it with a caption for friends and followers to see; you can even add a filter (retro ’70s, black-and-white) to change the look of the snap. Kids post everything from images of a double-decker ice cream cone they shared with a friend to their own risqué selfies—we’re talking about you, Willow Smith.

Snapchat Users send a picture or video (called a snap) to a friend. Then once it’s viewed—poof!—it disappears (unless someone takes a screengrab of that sext). Teens like to string together snaps into a Story, which sticks around for 24 hours. Adults have started sending kid pics this way because there’s no pressure to get “likes” or comments on little Timmy’s trip to the zoo.

Twitter Think of this as Facebook light: Users post updates of 140 characters or less. It’s also the birthplace of the hashtag—a keyword, snarky sum-up, campaign or extra bit of info added to an update. #nowyouknow. Kids have occasionally been bullied in this space, but it’s mostly for tweeting the world, your bff or your fave celeb.

Vine Mini movies on a loop—that’s what you’ll find on this site, where users post six-second videos that play and replay and replay. The site has channels for animals, sports, style, even food—so you can watch vids of Beyoncé dancing or skateboarding tricks.

Tumblr It’s a blog, but light on the text: Tumblr users can post pictures, quotes and videos on their page, which continuously scrolls down. See everything from funny GIFs to images of teenage angst.

Question: How do I handle my son’s obsession with online gaming?

Answer: Before you freak out, sit and watch him play so you can see how he’s using games, suggests Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, a clinical psychologist, school consultant and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. Is he playing Call of Duty with strangers? Is Halo 5 too violent? Chances are your teen reaps real benefits from rapidly pressing all those buttons. (Some research suggests online gaming teaches kids how to collaborate.) But if your child games in the middle of the night, avoids school to play or talks ad nauseam about his favorite title, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart. Explain why you’re concerned, place limits on gaming and come up with ways your child can team up with friends and work on problem solving away from the screen—perhaps by taking up a new sport.

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How Real Is Teens’ Digital Reality?

We all know “reality” TV is about as far from real adult life as you can get—except for Teen Mom. That’s real. Surprisingly, the girls surveyed in the study find that even supposed-to-be-truthful portrayals of teens in the mediasphere are also skewed. But that doesn’t mean those depictions won’t make them feel inadequate. That’s why experts say it’s crucial for parents to talk to kids about the ways people they see on the screen are different from people in real life. You might open up a conversation with something like, “So what did you think of the way Taylor-Ann was acting on #RichKids of Beverly Hills?” Or “Wow, I’m glad I never tried the Kylie Jenner challenge, aren’t you?”

Fact: Nine out of 10 teen girls say that teenage life is not accurately depicted on TV.

What Teens Say

"Men are constantly portrayed as the providers and the caretakers in the media, which can be harmful.” —Sam, 16, Washington, DC

“Relationships take much more work than the media shows.” —William, 17, Crystal Lake, IL

“You come to expect things you see in the media. You think, ‘I wish a guy would do that for me.’ It lowers self-confidence.” —Alexis, 16, Louisville, KY

Question: How can I get my kid to stop multiscreening?

Answer: Chances are your teen tells you that working on several tabs on the computer—or even multiple devices—at once isn’t a big deal. But it is. “Multiscreening undermines a child’s capacity to develop focus. It can interfere with retention and learning,” says Steiner-Adair. “But kids can get that focus back by working it like a muscle.” Strengthen your teen’s attention span by inquiring instead of criticizing. Be curious before you’re critical. When you see her multitasking, ask your teen how much she thinks she’s able to learn while researching her term paper, Instagramming and texting at the same time, suggests Steiner-Adair. Or upload a time management app, such as RescueTime, with her. It will track and report activity on websites and applications to compare how she thinks she’s spending her online time with what she’s really doing. If all else fails, unplug, turn off the Wi-Fi or collect your kid’s phone during homework hours.

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Question: How can I stay on top of all of my child’s online use?

Answer: You can’t. “Constantly policing kids is a waste of time, because they use so much technology,” says Dina Borzekowski, EdD, research professor in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. What you can do: Keep an open conversation going about what’s appropriate online. Decide how much screen time is enough and what kind of language he should use online. Discuss how what you post can have infinite consequences. Make it a condition of online access that you have your teen’s passwords so you can support and protect him. Log on once in a while to check
on your kid, says Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. And ask to see his texts (no, really). Texting is a privilege and can have legal consequences.


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Silent Confessions

One in three teen girls have put something on social media they wouldn’t want their parents to see. Check out what these kids posted online so you can talk to your teens about what’s appropriate.


For more conversation starters, tips for managing social media and advice from real teens check out these blog posts:

 3 Smart Ways to Start "The Talk" with Your Teen. Today.

How to Pass On Relationship Values to Your Kids

What I Learned About the "Sex Talk" from Watching "Gossip Girl"

Watching Your Kids' Social Media Presence

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