What listening to teenagers and their parents has taught us about staying safe online

This month, as part of their ongoing partnership with bullying prevention charity, Kidscape, Qustodio ran a survey and series of focus groups, to better understand attitudes to technology amongst teenagers and parents, a project I was lucky enough to help facilitate.   Our interactions with over 50 parents from across the UK, helped us to see how families are trying hard to juggle the pros and cons of life online.  Here are some of our most useful findings. 


What are families most concerned about?

It’s little surprise that all parents recognise we are living in exceptional times, and screen time has increased across almost all families, often doubling, during the COVID lockdown.  Parents feel hypocritical limiting their children’s time online, as they too are more glued to screens than ever, working from home and staying connected to friends and family via zoom.  

With little opportunity to spend time doing the many offline hobbies which used to take up kids time (think playing outdoors, clubs, sports teams, meeting with friends), it’s harder for parents and their children to find the incentives to cut back on screen time.  We found this is particularly the case for only children, who’s interaction with others of a similar age is now solely through the internet.  

Many teenagers are aware of how much time they spend online, and don’t like it.  They feel like they often waste time, procrastinate or get distracted from more important things and want better guidance on how to stay in control.  They also recognised the negative effect that time online can have on their self confidence, often as a result of social comparison.  Whilst we saw that girls were more likely to pay excessive attention to producing the perfect picture, or tracking ‘likes’, boys were not immune - some also felt the pressure of social validation.  For boys though, the more common concern was the pull of gaming, causing them to miss out on other activities, like reading a book or studying.  

Parents are concerned that screen time can affect their children’s mood and behaviour, that impacts sleeping patterns, and leads to health issues like sore eyes and headaches.  Some parents also mentioned that online life was leading to more arguments, negatively impacting self-esteem and exposing their children to the risk of cyber-bullying.  The increased risk of social exclusion was raised by both parents and teenagers, as, they said, it is easier to cut someone out of an online circle, than a physical space at school.  

In many families, teenagers felt that parents struggled to emphasise with their online life. At the same time, some parents felt like they couldn’t and never would understand it.  This has created an impasse in some families, where it is hard to talk about tech use, with teenagers preferring to take advice from other young people.  Parents felt particularly concerned with the rate of change, struggling to keep up with new apps, or hacks their children were using to bypass controls. 

As for when to give out phones for the first time, most parents felt they had made the right choice.  However, this wasn’t necessarily as a result of their own child’s readiness, rather a sense that complying with social and peer pressure was more important.  Many children were already experiencing risky digital content at school through friend’s devices before they were given their own phone.  In the same light, parents often struggle to set their own family boundaries on appropriate apps or content to view.  Parents that apply stricter levels around privacy and access to social media, were viewed as overprotective by their children relative to their friend’s families. 

Teenagers thought that their schools’ current approaches to online safety were largely ineffective, with repetitive content and assembly-style sessions delivered by facilitators who were hard to relate to, failing to hit home.  In many cases, they felt that online risks such as grooming or child exploitation for sex or crime, were not relevant for them.  Some teenagers were laughing about these talks.  Whilst the risks are there for every child, they are not being taken seriously.  

What did we learn from families about getting it right?

All families recognised the need for open conversations about technology.  Parents who had managed to stay better informed and in control of their own relationship with technology were better equipped to do this, making it more likely that families could agree on screen time and appropriate content rules.  However, many parents still felt like they weren’t sufficiently informed to impose restrictions fairly. 

Some households had effectively set limits like banning phones upstairs (for all family members), screen-free dinners and time limits on daily screen time.  In many cases, where these rules had been imposed alongside the right conversation, children were grateful for the boundaries.  Some parents had chosen to use spot checks to keep an eye on their children online.  However, there was consensus, particularly in families with older children, of the right to privacy in the context of a trusting relationship.


So where from here?

Qustodio & Kidscape have created a family activity sheet to help facilitate the right kind of reflection and conversations in your home.   This print-out also provides a list of further resources to help parents and their children get more up to speed with current apps, their benefits and risks, and also where to go for help, if more support is needed.  

We recommend you download this resource now, and kick-start the conversation in your home! 

Qustodio is an independent digital safety and wellbeing company. We help families live smarter in an increasingly digital world. We aim to improve how families interact with technology through our parental control app, data insights and expert content to help them thrive online and beyond


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