In the process of writing my book, The New Age of Sex Education: How to Talk to your Teen about Cybersex and Pornography, I feel like I have read every scientific study from the past decade on the topics of online pornography, sexting and internet safety. Last night’s reading, a 2011 study on the safe internet use of Dutch children, prompted me to think about the tactics that parents use to try to maintain safe internet use by their children.

First, the study talked about the types of risk a child faces (this comes from a 2008 study from De Moor et al). Internet risks to children can be broken down into three categories with several subcategories. First, there are content risks online. The most obvious type of content risk is of sexual or provocative content. The second type of content risk is that of wrong information. Not everything on the internet is true and children can be exposed to content portrayed as fact without the ability to know the difference.

The second type of risk is contact risk. Children may be at risk for online contact or solicitation via chat rooms, social media, etc. The more remote, but possible risk is for an off-line contact. Some children do meet people in real life that they have met online. Sometimes this is innocuous and just another child with similar interests. However, sometimes, this can be an adult who wants to meet the child for unsavory purposes.

The final risk is commercial risk. This can be unwanted collection of personal data or commercial exploitation. For the purposes of my work, this is not a risk within my realm of interest and I will not be discussing it here.

Most parents in today’s age are aware and knowledgeable enough to know that these risks exist for their children. Many parents take an active role in trying to avert these risks. Parents tend to take one of several strategies when it comes to protecting their children while they are online. Some parents engage in what researchers call Restrictive Mediation. This type of strategy uses rules about internet use such as when or for how long the internet can be used or what types of sites might be accessed. The other type of “internet parenting” is Active Mediation. In this type of parenting style, a parent will talk to their child about internet usage and/or check the content on the child’s computer. Parents in this style are much more active participants.

Both of these styles sound like they might be helpful. First, regardless of style, parents employing them are taking some active role in their child’s internet use. The problem is that research shows that neither parenting style really decreases the risk of online exposure, and is particularly ineffectual in preventing their child from an in-person meeting with a stranger met online.

What appears to be the best parenting style for promoting safe internet use is what is called the “authoritative style.” With this style, parents set clear rules or boundaries about internet use. However, parents who use this style also have what the researchers call a “sufficient level of parental warmth”. In non-science terms, this means that parents also use the computer so they understand it. They also discuss things with their children and have good communication about risk issues.

At some level, I don’t think any parenting style is bad because in all three, parents are at least actively involved. Some parents don’t employ any ‘style’ when it comes to their children’s internet use. However, I am always a fan of boundaries and open and frequent communication. A tech savvy teen can get around a filter so it is less effective than trying to get around a persistent parent who wants to talk.

Valcke,M., De Wever, B., Van Keer, H. & Schellens, T. (2011) Long Term Study of safe internet use of young children.  Computers and Education, (57) 1292-1305.