A new study suggests a "digital disconnect" between parents and teens.

The survey, which interviewed 804 online teens between the ages of 13 and 17 and a separate sample of 810 online parents, found several signs of an apparent digital disconnect, illustrated by the finding that 60 percent of teen internet users have created online accounts that their parents are unaware of – more than double the 28 percent of online parents who suspect their teens have secret accounts. The study also found a high reliance by teens on peer-to-peer support with 43 percent of respondents saying friends have sought their support because they encountered issues online.

Co-sponsored by Microsoft, the study was designed to better understand the dynamic online lives of teenagers, including the kinds of problems they face in their digital daily lives and parents' levels of concern and engagement. It found that as "Generation App" spends much of its day on a phone, device or computer using a wide range of apps and websites, parents are having a hard time keeping up. For example, 30 percent of teens say their parents are "not aware at all" or "not very aware" of their online activities while 57 percent of parents surveyed admit that they are similarly in the dark about what their kids are doing online. Moreover, 28 percent of teens report that their households have no rules when it comes to their use of internet-connected devices, whereas only 9 percent of parents said that was the case in their household.

In comparison, responses from both parent and teen samples, revealed a significant difference between both groups and their online perceptions:

Making and Enforcing Rules: A high percentage of parents (67%) say that their teens are required to report any online incidents that make them feel scared or uncomfortable, but only 32 percent of those in the teens survey say they are asked to follow this rule.

Sharp Disconnect on the Basics: When it comes to the understanding of basic online rules, there are notable discrepancies across the two surveys. Fifty percent of parents claim they have rules requiring their kids to share account passwords, while only 16 percent of teens report having such a rule. Fifty-four percent of parents state they have rules about downloading new apps or joining social networks, and only 16 percent of teens report such a rule. And, 41 percent of parents indicate there are daily limits on screen time for their children but only 15 percent of teens say they have these kinds of limits.

Responding to Problems: Teens indicate that they are not very likely to turn to their parents for help with various online problems. Forty-eight percent claim they "never" or "rarely" turn to their parents. Yet, 65 percent of parents say their kids are likely to share problems with them "most of or all the time."
The survey also highlights an array of issues teens face online and how they respond:

Negative Online Experiences: Thirty-nine percent of teen internet users report someone has been mean or cruel to them online in the past year. Fifty-two percent of those incidents involved a response to something they said or did, 45 percent involved something about their appearance, and about one in four say the content was about their sexual orientation, gender or race.

Reliance on Peer-to-Peer Support: When teens face a serious problem online, 40 percent say that a friend would be the first person they turn to, while 85 percent of parents say they hope their child would come to them for help.

Security, Safety and Privacy Concerns: Across the board, teens report that they are "very concerned" about someone:

  • Accessing their account without permission (47%)
  • Sharing personal information about them online (43%)
  • Having a photo or video shared that they wanted to keep private (38%), and
  • Receiving unwanted communications that make them uncomfortable (32%).
  • Online safety continues to be a dinner table conversation in American homes. A majority of teens (78 percent) say that their parents have talked with them about ways to use the internet and mobile devices safely, and 78 percent say their parents have talked to them about what should and should not be shared online or on cell phones. Additionally, 73 percent of teens claim their parents have talked with them about ways to behave toward other people online or on the phone, and 68 percent report having conversations with their parents about what they do online or on their mobile devices.

"It's gratifying to see that parents are taking on the challenge of educating their children on the fundamentals of online safety, but this survey shows that it's time to update our approach to the tech talk," said NCSA Executive Director Michael Kaiser. "In an era where there's a new app every day, it's important that we change the lens of online safety from a tracking and monitoring perspective to a more empowering approach that prepares young people to better respond to the various challenges they will likely encounter in their online lives. Equally critical is helping teens understand that their friends may seek their help with online problems, so they should be capable of offering helpful advice and also ascertaining when a situation requires adult assistance."

While teens and parents clearly diverge in a number of areas, they appear to have some consistent priorities and concerns. Both parents and teens also say they believe they have the ability to deal with encountering hateful or violent content effectively. Forty-eight percent of online teens say that if they were directed to online content containing extreme violence or hateful views that made them feel uncomfortable, they are "very confident" they could handle a situation like this on their own, while 21 percent say they are "somewhat confident." Parents also express relatively high levels of confidence in their ability to help their children deal with this kind of scenario: half (50%) say they are "very confident" and 37 percent said they are "somewhat confident."

Moreover, both teens and parents express concerns about exposure to online extremist content. One in four teens (27%) say they are "very concerned" that they might be directed to content about extreme political or religious activities that will make them feel uncomfortable. Similarly, 31 percent of parents said they are "very concerned" about their children being directed to content containing extreme violence or hateful views.

The protection of personal information also remains a high safety and security concern for parents and teens. When it comes to learning more about internet-associated risks, both groups point to "preventing identity theft" as the number one topic they'd like to learn more about. Second and third on the list are "keeping my devices secure" and "how to identify fake emails, social posts and texts," respectively – again, indicating a strong desire to learn the basic steps to maintaining online security.