The intense coverage of teenage congressional pages receiving "overfriendly" e-mails and sexually charged online instant messages from suddenly retired Rep. Mark Foley have underlined some serious, ongoing parental fears about teenagers and the lives they lead on the computer. What are they seeing, writing and doing?
We know today's teenagers are fluent in the latest communications technologies, often using them all at once. But when someone quantifies that knowledge with actual numbers, the results are eye-opening.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that 15- to 18-year-olds average nearly six-and-a-half hours a day watching TV, playing video games and surfing the Internet -- and a quarter of that time, they're doing more than one at the same time. The biggest increase in their activity was computer use for "social networking," which has risen nearly threefold since 2000, to one hour and 22 minutes a day on average.
It is why parents should carry around a satchel of anxiety that they're always behind the curve on this networking. A 2005 survey organized by Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) found that over half of parents either do not have or do not know if they have software on their computers that monitors where their teenagers go online and with whom they interact.
Forty-two percent readily admit they do not review the content of what their teenagers read and/or type in chat rooms or instant messages. I suspect many more see bits and pieces of these communications and trust their teens with the rest. Billions of instant messages bounce through cyberspace each day.
Parents often don't get the online lingo. Fifty-seven percent of the parents surveyed didn't know one of the most commonly used instant-message abbreviations, LOL (laughing out loud), and 95 percent of parents couldn't identify the lingo children use to alert people their parents are watching, like P911 or POS (parent over shoulder).
In May, Cox and the NCMEC issued another study on the teenager side of the ledger, which really puts teen Internet usage and networking into focus. Sixty-one percent of 13- to 17-year-olds surveyed said they have a personal profile on a site such as MySpace, or Friendster, or Xanga. Countless news stories have warned of the very real dangers, yet half of these surveyed teens said they've posted pictures of themselves online.
Older teens and girls especially use the Internet for social purposes. Many are attracted to online communities organized around their interests, such as skateboarding, Japanese anime, video gaming or rock star fan clubs.