Needham sixth graders send an average of 23 texts per day. They spend about two hours each day sending messages by phone and several hours on the Internet doing homework, surfing the Web, playing games and going on Facebook.
And 31 percent of them say they can’t tell their parents all the websites they visit.
That’s the finding of Needham Youth Services’ latest Safe Surf Workshop Survey, conducted last spring during a program at High Rock School that educates sixth graders about safe Internet use. (See the survey results as a PDF in the image gallery at right.)
The department has offered the Safe Surf program annually for several years, and the topics have changed over that time, according to Youth Services Director Jon Mattleman.
In the program’s early days, the focus was on pornography, online predators and other issues parents worried about. But more recently, the program has evolved into a focus on “cyber friendships”—the friendships kids make online.
“Some of these relationships are with kids they would never talk to in school. Some of these are kids they have never met. And some are continuations of things that go on in school—some are healthy and fun and some are not so healthy,” Mattleman said.
During the Safe Surf program, Youth Services staff members walk sixth graders through various scenarios that could happen online, by text or otherwise—then let the students problem solve, offering tips and guidance along the way.
How Much Time Online?
The survey asks students to quantify the time they spend online and identify how they feel about it—such as whether they’ve been “cyber bullied” or whether they can tell a parent what they do online.
In the 2012 survey, 92 percent of sixth graders (ages 11-13) said they use the Internet daily for homework (an average of 1.5 hours each). Seventy-six percent said they surf the Web daily, while 69 percent said they play games, 56 percent said they instant message or email and 34 percent said they use Facebook.
Sixty percent said they use video chat on a regular basis.
Twenty-eight percent of sixth graders surveyed said their parents don’t monitor their Internet use. (Fifty-one percent didn’t know, and 21 percent said their parents did monitor it.)
Twenty-eight percent also said they know someone who has been bullied or harassed online, and 20 percent said they or someone they know has done or said something online that they wouldn’t do or say in person—such as swearing, bullying, teasing, gossiping or insulting someone.
Regarding phone use, sixth graders surveyed said they spend an average of 2.04 hours daily sending text messages. About 73 percent said they spend at least some time texting on an average day, and 53 percent said they send picture messages.
Forty-three percent of sixth graders said their parents don’t monitor their cell phone use. (Thirty-two percent didn’t know, and 25 percent said their parents did.)
Getting the Message
So what do all these numbers mean to those who run the survey—and what should they mean to Needham parents?
“I really want the whole program and the surveys to make people say, ‘Wow, I need to really think about this—intellectually as a parent—and then have a conversation with my kids,” Mattleman said. “These kids are born into the Internet. As the parents, we’re newcomers. We didn’t grow up with this."
Parents need to realize the amount of time the average preteen spends on the Internet or on a phone—which, in many cases, is a miniaturized version of the home computer. By recognizing the role these devices play in a child’s daily life, Mattleman said, parents can begin to make connections between issues that may arise and can set rules and limits to help guide their children toward using the Internet in a healthier way.
“Parents really have some choices. They can put on parental controls. They can also take away devices. At 10 o’clock at night, take away that phone because [your kid is] probably emailing or texting or sexting or whatever. It’s unhealthy or it’s not productive or, at the minimum, they should be sleeping,” Mattleman said.
While parents may choose to give their children cell phones for good reasons—such as having a way to contact them in an emergency—adults also need to acknowledge that paying the phone bill comes with certain rights.
“Make a contract, whether verbal or written, and make it clear: this is not a right; it’s not a privilege. I’m allowed to do ‘x’, whatever you agree to: read your texts, check your email, etc.,” Mattleman said.
One tip he recommends is for parents to ask visiting friends, along with their own children, to leave their cell phones in a central place, such as the kitchen counter, during the visit.
“There’s a lot of bullying that goes on, there’s a lot of harassment, and what seems inoccuous is not. I text you and I say, ‘Everyone’s here but you’re not invited.’ That can feel really excluding,” Mattleman said.
When bullying and teasing is done by phone or on the Internet, it can quickly increase a child’s anxiety, which carries back over into how he or she performs at school.
Imagine that bully from your childhood chasing you not just back to your front door but through the door, right into your own home and even into your own bedroom—with no escape even late at night.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and with students back into the rhythm of school, now is as good a time as any for parents to evaluate their child’s Internet and phone use and set ground rules, Mattleman said.
“If kids are spending that much time online,” he said, referring to the survey, “shouldn’t parents be talking about it? Things like ‘What is an email, what is a Tweet, and why do we do it? Not many parents have said to their kids, 'Tell me the top 10 sites that you go to'—because kids are getting rid of their history. They know how to do it.”