Sahara Byrne: Parents, Kids and Online Safety

Prof. Sahara Byrne, of the communications department at Cornell, is the Berkman Center‘s lunch series speaker today.  Prof. Byrne studies responses to Internet safety techniques.  She’s interested in the “recipes for disaster,” such as when parents love a given safety technique and kids hate it.  She’s a believer in psychological reactance theory: that when kids really don’t like something, they’re going to work hard to get around it.

Her methods: an extensive Internet survey of 456 parents, with matched child pairs (10 – 17 years old).  Asked parents how much they would support a particular tool and kids how they would feel if their parent adopted this strategy.  Parents were asked more questions than the kids.

This is a fascinating and important study.  Her data are brand new and she’s still working through them and their implications.  The outcome of her study is especially of interest to some of us here at the Berkman Center because Prof. Byrne developed her survey in large part based on the public meeting’s output from the Internet Safety Technical Task Force and the Task Force’s final report.

A few of her findings from the matched pairs:

– Surveillance of kids’ online behavior by the technology/service provider is popular by parents and particularly disliked by kids.

– User-child empowerment strategies were popular with both parents and kids.

– Also, equally popular among parents and kids: when kids who were bad or mean were suspended from school.

Some of the important predictors of whether there will be disagreement or not with respect to a given matched pair:

– Parenting style can predict a great deal of agreement/disagreement between parents and kids.  Households with good communications between parents and kids are likely to have the greatest level of agreement.  Authoritative styles of parents — where there’s a mix of good communications but also clear parenting decision-making — there’s still likely to be a challenge for parents in terms of deploying some of these technologies to help kids stay safe.

– Values and religion were important variables.

– Boys tend to disagree with their parents more than girls.

If one buys the psychological reactance theory, the types of approaches that are most likely to work:

– Empowering children to protect themselves

– Giving the government and industry some responsibility for protecting kids in terms of protecting them from harmful information

What’s most risky in terms of strategies that may lead to the highest degree of disagreement:

– Co-viewing of information

– Parental access to what kids were looking at (tracking)

Parents are not that aware of what their kids are actually do (Prof. Byrne showed statistically relevant differences in several cases).

During the discussion phase, we learned about a promising cyber-safety approach underway at the Boston Public Schools, with funding from Microsoft.  It’s a student-run program called “Cyber Safety Heroes” (the previous name ran into an IP dispute with a well-known content company…).  I look forward to following it closely.

And stay tuned for the final, published version of this very helpful research!

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