The Internet and the Family 2000: The View from Parents—The View from Kids

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The Internet and the Family 2000: The View from Parents—The View from Kids


By: Joseph Turow and Lilach Nir

Date: May 2000

Source: Turow, Joseph, and Lilach Nir. Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania Report Series. "The Internet and the Family 2000: The View from Parents, the View from Kids." Report 33. May 2000 〈〉 (accessed June 29, 2006).

About the Author: The Annenberg Public Policy Center was established at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994. It conducts research and it promotes public discussion regarding media, communication, and public policy. Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications, has authored over fifty articles and eight books dealing with various aspects of mass communications. Lilach Nir is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


The Internet and the Family 2000 highlights the historic tension that exists between parents, who are responsible for their family's moral integrity and leadership, and children, who as adolescents often seek experiences independent of their family, with or without parental consent. The Internet is the most profound example of this parent/child dynamic in the history of the American family. The speed, immediacy, and relative ease with which it can be accessed by an adolescent have fundamentally changed the definition of parental control over media.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when television was the dominant external social influence in most American homes, parents could control what their children watched. Most sets were in a relatively open and accessible portion of the home, rendering any televi-sion watching a quasi-public event. If a parent did not wish a child to watch television, the set could simply be turned off. In addition, programming was crafted for a conservative audience, and there was rarely any impropriety in language or the situations portrayed. When Elvis Presley appeared on television in 1957, for example, the Ed Sullivan Show refused to show his suggestive hip gyrations. Ten years later, the show insisted that the lyrics of the Rolling Stones song "Let's Spend the Night Together" undergo a revision before the band could perform it.

The technological advances that propelled the home computer and its related technologies to a lead position among media influences altered the parent/child dynamic in two key respects. The first was the speed of the technological change: it was not uncommon for children in the family to know much more about the family computer than the adult who bought it and paid the monthly Internet access account. In homes where the parent was absent for large portions of the day, or did not monitor their children's computer habits, the computer-savvy child could gain a level of technical superiority in the home.

The second aspect was the interactive nature of the computer. Children, through personal e-mail accounts, instant-messenger systems, and chat rooms, had a means to interact with a host of persons entirely beyond their parents' control, unless they supervised their child's computer use.




If there is one point that our study highlights it is that many—in fact, probably most—American families are filled with contradictions when it comes to the Internet. Parents fear that it can harm their kids but feel that their kids need it. Parents and kids individually say they have talked to each other about giving out information over the Web, but parents and kids in the same family don't remember doing it. Kids agree that parents should have a say on the information they give out over the Web but nevertheless find it acceptable to give out sensitive personal and family information to Web sites in exchange for a valuable free gift.

It should not be surprising that these sorts of contradictions lead to tensions. This year's Annenberg report on the Internet and the Family has focused on the contradictions and tensions surrounding the release of family information. We have found that three out of four parents say they are concerned that their children "give out personal information about themselves when visiting Web sites or chat rooms." Smaller, though still quite substantial, proportions of parents and youngsters report having experienced at least some incidents of disagreement, worry or anger in the family over kids' release of information to the Web. The proportions of families feeling such tensions will likely grow in coming years as new technologies for learning about individuals proliferate on the Internet. For media and marketers, information about teens is an increasingly valuable commodity. For logical business reasons they will pursue knowledge about youngsters and their families as aggressively as possible.

The task for civic society is to set up a counterbalance to their efforts that establishes norms about what is ethically and legally correct for media and marketers to do. We might note here that Federal and university research guidelines require academic investigators to get parents' permission to interview tweens and teens about something as benign as their general attitudes toward the Web. It is ironic that marketers can track, aggregate and store far more personal responses to questions by individuals in these age groups without getting any permission from parents at all.

Nevertheless, while one can agree (as almost all parents do) that teenagers should get permission from parents before giving information to sites, legislation that forces Web sites to get that permission raises complex issues. A clear drawback is that mandating Web sites to get parental permission from youngsters age 10 to 17 is impractical in an era when youngsters can discover ways to get around such requirements or forge their parents' permission.

Even if it becomes possible for a site to verify whether a visitor is or is not a teen, we have to question whether this sort of verification is socially desirable. What might be the consequences of the "electronic carding" of tweens and teens? Would many Web sites simply prohibit teens from entering rather than go to the trouble to turn off their tracking and profiling software for them? More controversially, would it mean that teens could not participate in chat rooms or listservs where information about users is systematically collected? If so, would that be infringing on the right of the youngsters to express their opinions in open forums?

Clearly, the new digital technologies are creating circumstances where society's interest in encouraging parents to supervise their youngsters is colliding with society's interest in encouraging youngsters' to speak out and participate in public discussions. We hesitate to suggest that the FTC rules that guide Web sites regarding children under 13 should be applied to youngsters 13 and over. At the same time, we reject the notion that teens should be approachable by Web sites as if they are fully responsible and independent adults in need of no parental supervision. We believe that the best policy in this area lies in aggressively encouraging family discussions of privacy norms along with limited Federal regulation.

  • Our study points to the importance of urging parents and their children to talk in detail about how to approach requests by Web sites for personal and family data. Parents should not take for granted that traditional cautions such as "don't give out your name" or "don't talk to strangers" will be enough for the Web. Family members need to understand how all sorts of information about their interests can be tracked through cookies and related software without their even knowing it.
  • Many parents cannot develop norms about family privacy alone. Our study and others have found that parents simply do not know enough about the Web to be aware of the way Web sites gather information and what to do about it. Here is a terrific opportunity for community groups, libraries, schools, and state and Federal agencies to work together on campaigns aimed at making information privacy a hot family topic and bringing community members together to learn about it.
  • One way to get family members talking about these issues when children are relatively young (say, aged 6 through 12) is to convince parents and kids to surf the Web together. Encouraging family Web surfing, and family discussions about Web surfing, ought to be a priority of government and nonprofit organizations that care about enriching Americans' Internet experiences.
  • Logically connected to encouraging community and family discussions of information privacy is the need for individuals to know what Web sites know about them. Our research shows that virtually all parents believe that they should have a legal right to that information. A Web Freedom of Information Act should be passed that allows every person access to all data, including clickstream data, that a Web site connects to his or her individual computer or name. Whether parents should have the right to access their youngsters' data should be a matter of public discussion.
  • Our finding that youngsters are substantially more likely than parents to give up personal information to a Web site when increasing values are associated with a free gift supports suggestions for another Federal regulation: Web sites aimed at tweens and teens should be prohibited from offering free gifts, including prizes through sweepstakes, if those gifts are tied in direct or indirect ways to the youngsters' disclosure of information.

We fully expect that some of these suggestions will be more controversial than others. All of them will take a lot of work. But then, it will take a lot of work from many quarters of society to help maximize the benefits of the Internet for the family.


Many parents have a love/hate relationship with their children's computer and Internet access. They fear the possibly unhealthy or dangerous aspects of Internet access in all of its guises and are equally certain of the crucial role that computer literacy will play in their children's education and vocational futures.

This is especially true with respect to the safeguarding of confidential information. The authors identify concerns about Internet marketing efforts and the ability of a commercial web site to track those persons who access their sites. Parents don't want their family to be targeted by companies contacted by a child through the Internet. Many say that they have implemented rules about sharing any family information over the Internet.

A number of studies published since 2000 suggest that parents' intentions to regulate Internet use to protect personal information are honored more in the breach than in the observance. A series of studies conducted in the United States and Canada are instructive. (Canada is a useful statistical comparison because of the shared mass media influences with the United States coupled with a similar level of home computer usage.) A United States Department of Justice study published in 2005 revealed that fifty percent of all adolescents used their home computers without any adult supervision; twenty percent of females under the age of eighteen surveyed had been sexually solicited online, as had ten percent of the males in that age group. The American computer technology magazine CNET published a 2005 poll that suggested that over fifty percent of American families did not use software on their home computers to monitor or to filter undesirable web content; in the same poll, forty-two percent of parents did not review any of their children's instant messaging records to determine whether their children were engaged in any risky contacts through this means.

The Canadian organization Media Awareness Network determined in 2004 that seventy-one percent of all adolescent computer users maintained a free web-based e-mail account, such as Hotmail®; eighty-six percent of these users revealed their gender, sixty-eight percent used their real name, thirty percent provided their address, and twenty percent gave their telephone number as part of their account registration. This apparently careless attitude toward the dissemination of personal information creates significant risks, given that the information is posted on an Internet accessible forum.

A variety of available programs can either shield the identity of the computer contacting a particular web site or remove "cookies"—the cyberspace trail created by a user. In addition, sophisticated popup-blocking, spyware, and adware programs are a simple solution to website marketing.

The most critical issue now facing parents and children regarding home computer and Internet usage is privacy. MySpace, the Internet-based social networking system, is very popular with children under eighteen, with a member base of over fifty million people. MySpace users commonly list all of their personal data, including personal photographs for anyone to view.

Parent/child relations and Internet access are likely to remain the primary focus of home computer use in the foreseeable future. Efforts to regulate aspects of computer communication, including the Communications Decency Act in 1996, and the Child Online Protection Act of 1998, were halted in a series of constitutional challenges upheld in the Supreme Court of the United States. One solution identified in the primary source, a regulatory framework to govern Internet marketers, remains a remote prospect. The Internet remains essentially unregulated and the onus of protective action against unwanted or undesirable media influence through the Internet continues to rest with families who use a home computer.



Boni, William C., and Gerald L. Kovacich. I-Way Robbery: Crime on the Internet. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999.

Darrell, Keith B. Issues in Internet Law. Phoenix: Amber Books, 2006.

Lanford, Duncan. Internet Ethics. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000.

Web sites

Federal Bureau of Investigation. "A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety." 2006 〈〉 (accessed June 29, 2006).

Home Office, United Kingdom. "Child Protection." 2006 〈〉 (accessed June 30, 2006).

Internet Content Rating Association. "Contact ICRA." 2006 〈〉 (accessed June 30, 2006).

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The Internet and the Family 2000: The View from Parents—The View from Kids

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The Internet and the Family 2000: The View from Parents—The View from Kids