Teens Hiding Online activity from Parents

It won’t make the news to report that teens occasionally, or even habitually, indulge in activities of which their parents disapprove. Nor should it come as a surprise that the young folk attempt to hide this behavior; thus it has ever been as long as there have been parents, teens and the rules that sometimes come between them. However, the ubiquity of device ownership amongst teens (from laptops to tablets to hand-held devices) plus 24/7 internet access is making some problems a little more difficult to deal with.

The online security company McAffee has been conducting surveys into internet use and behavior. A recent survey found that in 2012, 70 percent of teens (aged 13-17) reported having hidden online behavior from parents. This was up from 45 percent of teens in 2010. “There’s a lot more to do on the Internet today, which ultimately means there’s a lot more to hide,” said McAfee spokesman Robert Siciliano.

Maybe yes, maybe no. When it comes to forbidden teen behavior, there has always been a lot to do: smoking, drinking, partying, taking drugs, using porn, hanging out with unsavoury friends, petty crime, gang behavior, secret dating/sexual relationships. And not all online behavior is necessarily harmful in itself: the problem arises in managing time and finding balance. At our house, the main challenge seems to be limiting hours spent on Facebook (Mom is guilty too, alas) or computer games.

“The survey found that 43 percent of teens have accessed simulated violence online, 36 percent have read about sex online, and 32 percent went online to see nude photos or pornography.”

Again, while internet availability can exacerbate these issues, they are not unique to cyberspace. You can access all three on TV, computer games, and –at least in Canada—at the National Museum of Science and Technology.

Teens reported using various methods and tactics to avoid being discovered, from clearing browser history to deleting messages or just closing/minimizing windows and web pages when parents enter the room. The survey found that nearly 74 percent of parents trust their teens not to access inappropriate content, while 23 percent said they are not monitoring their children’s online behavior at all, citing that they feel “overwhelmed by technology.” (With such an attitude, perhaps they feel overwhelmed by parenting as well).

Siciliano said that is no excuse. “Parents can put their foot down and they can get educated…They can learn about the technology at hand.”

Well, yes, but that’s actually two different things. I always have the time (and willpower) to exercise my parental authority; learn how to access Netflix via the Wii, not so much.

When all is said and done, the most crucial approach in combating these issues is just knowing your child and being able to talk to him/her. “They can learn about their children’s lives,” Siciliano said. Can parents eliminate bad behavior, online or otherwise? Not as long as human nature exists. But if you’ve done your utmost to pass your values onto your children; if you’ve tried to foster a healthy parent-child relationship and strive to keep open the lines of communication, you can go a long way in avoiding or minimizing the damage.

This article was originally published on MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons Licence.


Mariette Ulrich is a homemaker and freelance writer. She lives in western Canada with her husband and six of their seven children. Mariette holds an Honours B.A. in English Literature (University of Saskatchewan). Her columns and articles have appeared in various journals, newspapers and magazines in Canada, the U.S., England and Australia.

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Here in Scotland, a teenage boy was doing research for a school geography project on some place or  other in the Middle East.  He somehow managed to access a number of Jihadist websites and, as a result, he was bombarded with spam emails from would-be pen-pals in the Mujahideen.

    The first his family knew of it was when their front door was blasted off its hinges at about four in the morning, by concerned members of the security forces.

    What added a certain piquancy to the episode is that the family were members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and staunch pacifists, whose idea of a family outing was to go and picket nuclear submarine bases, like Faslane and Coulport.  In light of the young man’s internet activity, this assumed a sinister aspect in the eyes of Military Intelligence.

    • John


      Thank you for your post.  What an interesting way to illustrate that when it comes to on-line behavior, there are unintended consequences that few of us–especially teenagers–can envision, would intend, or are absolved of by our innocence.  The internet can be a malicious place.  It is entirely possible that Jihadists could have wormed their way into that poor family’s bank accounts…

       I don’t know how well teenagers react to being “scared straight”–but this is a great example of why we parents need to understand and teach our children how truly evil the online world can be–again, regardless of our innocence.  I don’t know quite how I’ll do this when my kids are old enough to be using the internet, but I’m sure an example like this, some good examples of innocent folks getting their bank accounts hacked, or a predator pretending to be someone he’s not using Facebook to “befriend” his victim, or some well-crafted documentary on sexual slaves used to create pornography–something like this to help show my kids that the internet is nasty place, and they must be wise as serpents… 

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        I would rather have my bank account hacked than spend a few hours being interrogated by the security forces.  They are not of the police, you understand, and their methods are different.

        But you are right that it is a real risk, as is identity theft, with all that that involves.  As a lawyer, I could tell you a few merry tales about that, if space permitted, including people who had to obtain declarators from the courts to convince sceptical credit card companies.

  • Guest

    From 2004 to 2011, I was IT Manager at a Catholic secondary school in Perth, Western Australia.  While inappropriate student behaviour in the IT arena wasn’t a major problem, it was there.

    I agree that the parent-child relationship is bottom-line.  Mariette’s assertion that “the most crucial approach in combating these issues is just knowing your child and being able to talk to him/her” makes sense.

    Adolescence brings changes, and there is no substitute for vigilance.  Our advice to parents was to keep the computer in a central area of the house (i.e., not in the child’s bedroom).  However, that approach does not account for smart phones and wireless web access.

    You could require teenagers to do their homework in a room that parents can easily access at any time.  You could install monitoring software and eavesdrop on your teenager.  Personally, I regard both of those approaches as draconian.  They should only be considered if you feel your child is in danger, or becoming a danger to others.

    Ultimately, there is no substitute for keeping lines of communication open.

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  • If parents can’t get motivated for the sake of their kids, they should bear in mind that when it comes to the family computer, the server doesn’t know who is using it. If the children get up to anything unsavory, the whole family will be tainted.  

  • Bruce

    Really 74% trust their child not to access inappropriate content.  That is blind trust.  The kids have access to things we didn’t know about when we were teens.  I am shocked when I read that parents allow their kids to have internet in their rooms.  Wait until they find their teen posting on craigslist.   I am afraid for my grandchildren as they grow with friends having access to the net on their phones while setting in class or on the bus.  Wakeup they are not accessing Playboy.

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