A new study gives parents more reasons to be concerned about their children’s online safety. Uncommon Journalism speaks with an Internet safety expert on the best ways to protect teens and adolescents in cyberspace.
By: James Swift
According to a report released by McAfee, a subsidiary of Intel Corporation, the number of teens who have witnessed cyberbullying has increased more than threefold since last year.
The report, the 2014 Teens and the Screen Study: Exploring Online Privacy, Social Networking and Cyberbullying, found 87 percent of teens have been exposed to cyberbullying, marking a dramatic increase from just 27 percent of survey respondents in McAfee's 2013 study.
According to respondents who claimed to experience cyberbullying, roughly three quarters of subjects said they were harassed for their appearance, while 26 percent said they were harassed due to their race or religion. Nearly a quarter of respondents said they were bullied because of their sexuality.
For the report, the Futures Company surveyed more than 1,500 adolescents and teens, ages 10 to 18.
Among subjects who reported witnessing cyberbullying, more than half said the victims became angered or defensive, with 47 percent of the respondents stating that the cyberbullying victims they encountered ended up deleting their social media accounts entirely.
Researchers also reported an upswing in the number of youths who experienced negative situations in the real world stemming from online incidents. The 2014 study found half of all respondents had been in an arguments due to something posted online, compared to just 33 percent of 2013’s respondents.
Four percent of this year’s respondents said they have gotten into physical fights due to online altercations. Almost a quarter of subjects said that if they encountered online harassment, they would not know how to react.
But its not just cyberbullying that experts said is a growing problem for online youths.
“We are seeing the online interactions are having an increasing emotional impact on teens, often in a negative way,” McAfee East Coast Partner Marketing Manager Stanley Holditch told Uncommon Journalism. "Obviously the huge jump in amount of cyberbullying witnessed in 2014 as opposed to 2013 by respondents is troubling, but what also continues to be troubling is the lack of control that teens are exerting over their online lives."
A little under two-thirds of subjects said they have ratcheted up their social media privacy settings, and more than half of respondents said they do not turn off the geolocation features on their mobile devices. According to the report, an estimated 14 percent of youths have listed their home addresses online.
"This means that these online confrontations have the potential to snowball as more people, including those that do not know the teens involved, can join in the fray," Holditch said. "And the location data increases the possibility of online confrontations turning into offline altercations."
Researchers said teens are actively avoiding online haunts where they believe their parents may see their activities, with almost half of the respondents stating they would change their behaviors if their parents were watching them.
According to the McAfee study, the most popular online social network for kids in the U.S. isn’t Facebook. Rather, researchers found YouTube and Instagram running neck-and-neck for the title of preferred online hangout spot.
With many parents just now getting the hang of Facebook, Holditch advised moms and dads to forego learning the minute details of additional social networking platforms. Instead, he urged parents to focus on equipping their children with the skills necessary to avoid cyberbullying situations.
“Teach teens not to overshare,” he said. “Often, revealing personal details can lead to emotionally damaging online bullying.”
However, he does believe parents should remain hip to all of the emerging social media networks. "You don't have to create an account, but it is important to understand how they work and if your kids are on them," he said.
He also encouraged parents to teach their children to simply walk away from online harassment. “The common Internet wisdom ‘don’t feed the troll’ absolutely applies to cyberbullying,” he said. “By not responding in kind, children and teens can defuse the situation.”
That doesn’t mean he thinks parents should simply shake off cyberbullying as harmless, however. “Cyberbullying can be pervasive and scary,” he said. “If a child or teen is acting excessively withdrawn or seems nervous when using connected devices, ask what’s going on and take incidents of online bullying seriously.”
Previously, Holditch handled marketing duties for McAfee's Parental Control products, often serving as a press contact on youth Internet safety issues. Before that, he was a marketing manager for InternetSafety.com.
Holditch believes parents should casually talk to their kids about the risks of online connections.
"Teens should be exercising greater control over their personal content, as well as their location, and these steps should be part of the conversation when parents first allow their children to go online," he said.
He also advises parents to hold the passwords to their children's social media accounts, as well as the passcodes to their kids' mobile devices. "Stay one step ahead and take the time to research the various devices your kids use," he said. "You want to know more about their devices than they do."
And lastly, he said parents should be sure to give their sons and daughter some hearty discussions about managing their online reputations.
"Make sure your kids are aware anything they post online does not have an expiration date," he concluded.
Uncommon Journalism, 2014.