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Kids online: Parents worry about reputation, behavior, advertising, safety

SALT LAKE CITY — The list of things that worry parents as kids go online is growing. "Stranger danger" fears have been joined by concerns about reputation, becoming an advertising target and how a digital footprint can impact a child's real-world journey into adulthood, according to a new report on the American family and life online.

Just ask Jennifer Kelsey. The Salt Lake City mom says her daughter Samantha, 14, has both email and a Facebook account and that has meant lots of conversations about what kind of a trail one might leave behind from actions online. Her daughter's plans include college and a good job; her mom wants to protect her future prospects, so she checks in periodically to see what's going on.

She's not alone. Friday, the Pew Internet Project and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University released a report on "Parents, Teens and Online Privacy," based on a nationally representative survey. The report confirmed that parents have an expanding number of concerns about their children's online activities and showed that more parents have taken steps to see what their kids are doing in cyberspace and to protect their safety and their reputation.

Parental anxiety over a child's technology use isn't new, but the digital world is increasingly complex, said Mary Madden, a research associate at Pew and the report's co-author. As parents consider the challenges and potential ramifications, guiding or even outright managing a child's personal information and privacy can be a big task.

"It's daunting to manage your own settings as an adult, even," she said. "I think parents are sensitive to the fact that kids are uniquely valuable and vulnerable consumers in these spaces and they naturally want to protect their kids."

An advertising target

The report said 81 percent of parents worry about how much information advertisers can get about a child from online behavior. Nearly three-fourths of the parents of online teens are concerned about their child's interactions with people they don't know. And 69 percent also worry about the impact of a child's online activites on their academic and job prospects.

A like number are concerned about management of a child's reputation online.

The younger the teen, the more concern, Madden said, and some parents are intervening. Many talk to their kids about their concerns and potential problems. About a third of the parents of teens who are online have helped them set up their privacy settings, and half have used parental controls, including filtering and blocking.

Nicole Bullock, also in the Salt Lake area, considers herself savvy in a digital world, and she has the resume to prove it as the social media manager for She's been online herself for years, including blogging for nine years. She also attends social media events regularly.

Her daughter Rosie, 12, has long been interested in the digital world her mom occupies and has wanted to be online herself. She's too young for Facebook, Bullock said, but has been allowed to have a Twitter account and an email account. Bullock, like Kelsey, maintains the right to be involved in determining how much her daughter can do online.

Even when you've initially settled on privacy settings, they have to be revisited on occasion. "It requires a fair amount of attention; you can't set and forget. Many of these services do change default settings over time," Madden noted.

Setting boundaries

Her own comfort level online is good, Bullock said, and she's perhaps more comfortable than some parents with the legalese of social media privacy policies, for instance. Madden said that's a real struggle for some parents.

For a while, Rosie's Twitter account was private, and her mom still pays attention to who she follows and who follows her. They have ongoing discussions. Bullock has found online is a fun world for mom and daughter to do things together and learn about each other. She likes to see what her daughter "pins" on Pinterest. When she was using Instagram with vacation photos, Bullock said she helped Rosie set up her own account.

Both Bullock and Kelsey describe their daughters as responsible online and sensitive to things like vulgarity. They've had discussions about what might come back to haunt them when they apply to colleges or for jobs.

That's an issue Bullock thinks about for herself now more than she did in the past. When she worked in a different field, she said, "I was more liberal (posting) about how I spent my weekends, not that I'm a big partier, but the things I posted before …." When she was single, she wrote about dating. Who she dated back then is not necessarily what she wants people to know about her now, she added, a smile in her voice. She asks herself — and prompts her daughter: "Is this something you are comfortable with anyone in the whole world finding out about you?"

"Forget privacy settings. If a friend's privacy settings let the information about you out, would you care?" she asked. "It could be around forever."

Kelsey is sensitive to those ripple effects, too. Her daughter recently "liked" a photograph on Facebook. While there was nothing objectionable about the photo, the name of the group that put it up was not a name Kelsey hoped to see associated with Samantha. It was rude and crude. Those are things not everyone realizes or thinks about, she said. An online reputation can be harpooned by something as seemingly innocent as liking the wrong page or visiting the wrong site.

Still, she said she worries more about what her son Cameron, 11, is watching on YouTube. That's harder to monitor than most social media activity.


One of the report's newest findings, Madden said, is how many parents have searched for their child's name online to see what kind of information it calls up: 42 percent. That concern for reputation grows as children get closer to college age and the job market, she said. "When you look at age 17, in the midst of college applications, there's a big increase in that activity."

There's reason for parents to be concerned. "Studies show college admissions officers are taking postings into account when they are evaluating students," Madden said. "Even a year ago, it was up for debate whether that was the kind of material that would even be considered. Increasingly, it seems to be the case. So parents are trying to help their kids understand that once they approach the college years, they certainly need to clean up and be more careful with the way they present themselves online" if they haven't been before.

Another surprise in the report was "the extent to which parents are engaging with their kids on social media sites. Among those who use social media, half commented or responded directly to something posted on a child's account," Madden said. Whether they were being supportive or concerned was not asked.

Sometimes that occurred to the chagrin of the youths, according to a focus-group section in the report that showed the responses to that by the children.

The report found that parents and teens are encountering each other online in social network sites and that two-thirds of parents who have a child 12-17 use the sites, up from 58 percent in 2011. There's no difference between fathers and mothers, but there's great variation based on age: 82 percent of parents 40 and younger, compared to 61 percent of those who are older than 40.

The entire Pew report is at

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