Three Things Parents Do About Online Safety: Then & Now

Two research surveys ask parents what they do to keep their kids safe online.

The Internet landscape has changed a lot over the past several years. Throughout this transformation, the concern of Internet safety has persisted. Given how much the Internet has changed, we wonder if parents’ views on their kids’ online safety have also changed.

To address this question, we decided to look at two research studies: Here, at the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, we conducted a national, longitudinal online survey, called Growing up with Media. The first wave of this longitudinal survey began in 2006 and has since run 6 more waves. At Pew Research Center, the national online Teen Relationship study was recently conducted between late 2014 to early 2015. Part of the study’s goal was to understand how parents help their kids navigate the online world safely and appropriately.

Looking at results from these two studies, which roughly span a decade of time, it looks like parents more or less enforce the same common sense rules. For instance:

The vast majority of parents talk to their kids about what they see online.

Andy Dean/iStockPhoto, used with permission

Andy Dean/iStockPhoto, used with permission

Between 2006 and 2008, our Growing up with Media survey found that only 4-6% of parents had never had these type of discussions with their kids. Pew Research Center found similarly: Only 5% of the parents they surveyed had never discussed with their kids what they see online. Furthermore, more and more parents seem to understand the importance of having these conversations. The Growing up with Media survey found that, between 2006 and 2008, 1 in 3 parents almost always talked with their kids about what they see online. Last year, Pew Research Center found that 4 in 10 parents frequently had these conversations with their kids.

About 3 in 5 parents check the websites that their child visits.

In 2008, we found that 68% of parents reported checking their child’s Internet browsing history. What’s more, we found that parents are more likely to do this if they have younger kids: When we surveyed these same parents in 2006, 77% of parents reported checking their child’s Internet history. Then, between late 2006 and early 2007, 72% of these parents reported having done so.

Last year, Pew Research Center found that 61% of the parents they surveyed have checked to see which websites their kids have visited. Also interestingly, with the popularity of social media and cell phone use among teenagers [1], Pew Research found that 56% of parents have added their child as a friend or followed them on a social media network. Almost 1 in 2 parents in the Pew survey have checked the phone call or text messaging history on their teen’s cell phone.

About 2 in 5 parents install a filtering software to block certain websites or monitor online activity.

Our survey found that, in 2008, a large fraction of parents reported installing a software to filter their child’s access to certain websites or to monitor their child’s Internet activity. Similarly, Pew Research Center found that, last year, 42% of parents endorsed using software to block their kids from visiting inappropriate websites. Notably, parents with younger kids were more likely than parents of older teens to use these types of filtering/monitoring software.

Communication is key.

Remarkably and encouragingly, having conversations with kids about their online activity is far more common than installing a filtering or monitoring software on the computer. While this kind of software can be helpful in helping to keep kids away from inappropriate content, youth may figure out how to get around these safeguards. In fact, in our Growing up with Media survey, 1 in 4 youth whose computers had a filtering or monitoring software said they knew how to get around or disable it.

In contrast, talking with youth about their online activity can help establish trust between parents and their kids. By having a discussion, youth can better learn how to navigate the Internet. For example, Pew Research Center found that 1 in 3 parents have frequent discussions with their kids about how to appropriately interact with others online. Additionally, our Growing up with Media surveys found that most parents at least sometimes use the Internet alongside their child, which can provide an opportunity for parents to set an example of appropriate Internet use.

So, as much as the online world has changed in the past decade, parents’ involvement in their children’s technology use has not. This is good news for youth: While they may know more about the latest and greatest spaces to go online, parents tend to know more about how to make thoughtful decisions. Working together, we can help youth gain the skills they need to live healthy, technology-infused lives.

Note: The Growing up with Media Wave 3 survey included 13- to 18-year-old youth, whereas the Teen Relationships Study included 13- to 17-year-olds. Parents may have different rules for younger youth than older youth.

Learn more about our research at Center for Innovative Public Health Research.

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This article was written based on two research bulletins:

Center for Innovative Public Health Research. Growing up with Media: Parent and Youth Reported Household Rules Characteristics. 2011.

Anderson M. Parents, Teens and Digital Monitoring. Pew Research Center; 2016.

Thank you to Emilie Chen for her contributions to this blog.


[1] Lenhart A. Teens, social media, & technology overview 2015. 2015;