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Teens and online safety

Last Modified: 10/03/2019

Dr. Pamela Wisniewski, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science, University of Central Florida, who will present at “Teens and Screens 2019: Taking Charge of Mental Health”.

Teens are increasingly spending more of their time online. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 95% of teens have access to a smartphone and 45% report being online “almost constantly”. With this level of access and connectivity it is imperative that teens understand risks and build resilience for the potential negative impacts associated with their time online.

Traditional teen online safety has taken an abstinence approach – that teens should be shielded from experiencing online risks like cyberbullying, exposure to explicit content or sexual solicitations. While this helps alleviate fears and concerns held by the parents, these approaches do not take into account the developmental needs and experiences for our youth. A prime example of this parent-centric approach to internet safety are parental control apps that are used on a teen’s phone. This technology monitors and restricts their mobile activities instead of teaching them why an online space is not appropriate and helping them self-regulate their online behavior. This example highlights a tension within this type of regulation: We communicate with youth the importance of online safety and why they should care about their privacy in order to stay safe while at the same time using technology that takes their privacy away and their ability to personally vested in their own safety.

The example provided highlights a larger trend when it comes to teen online safety. We as parents and communities assume that teens have no personal agency when it comes to their own online safety. We predefine that they are unable or cannot effectively manage online risks by themselves. This trend goes against the findings of developmental psychologists who have shown that some level of autonomy and risk-seeking behaviors are a natural and critical part of adolescent development and growth and that shielding teens completely from all online risks may be detrimental to this process.

To address these issues, my research takes a teen-centric approach to understanding how teens experience various risks online, how they cope with these risks, and what resiliency factors are similar across teens when addressing these risks. In this work, I challenge the assumptions that have been made about how teens experience these issues and how to best protect teens online from these risks. My research has also shown that an over-reliance on parental mediation of online risks may be problematic in that parents are often not authoritative figures when it comes to the risks their teens are experiencing online. Therefore, new approaches that empower teens online by enhancing their risk-coping, resilience and self-regulatory behaviors empower teens so they can learn to more effectively protect themselves from online risks.


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