The vast majority of American parents talk to their children about how to be safe and ethical online, according to a new survey–a finding that runs counter to the popular image of parents who are clueless about their children’s internet activity. But the poll also reveals that far fewer parents talk to their kids about how to be savvy consumers of internet information, such as how to determine the credibility of online information and how to tell if a web site is biased.

The survey of parents’ actions and attitudes regarding their children’s internet use could be useful to educators, because it shows where the gaps are in what kids learn about the internet at home–gaps that schools could help fill, either through classroom instruction or by giving parents the tools to pass on this information themselves.

Researchers for the San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media and the Washington, D.C.-based education foundation Cable in the Classroom found that 85 percent of parents and legal guardians of children who go online said they have talked to their child in the past year about how to behave on the internet.

Eighty-eight percent of parents said the internet helps their children acquire skills and information needed to succeed in school, as well as helping youngsters learn about the things that most interest them and about different cultures and ideas.

More than 93 percent of those surveyed said they have taken action to make sure the web sites their children visit meet parental standards, according to the poll, which was conducted by Harris Interactive.

“Given how quickly children’s use of the internet is becoming [pervasive], we thought it was important to uncover parents’ uses,” said Helen Soule, executive director of Cable in the Classroom.

Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer said the results may mollify parents and educators alarmed by a 2005 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that American kids between 8 and 18 spend an average of 6.5 hours a day absorbed in media. That comes to 45.5 hours a week watching TV or videos, playing with computers, or listening to digital music–more than a full-time job.

“The results suggest that most parents balance the web’s dangers and benefits, they talk to their kids about the issues they meet, and work to make the web a helpful tool,” Steyer said.

Mothers or female guardians seemed most concerned about their children’s use of the internet.

About 80 percent of mothers said creating a searchable online profile or site such as a blog, Neopets, or MySpace account was somewhat or very inappropriate. Only 65 percent of fathers said the same.

Dads or male guardians also were more likely to view online gaming with others as appropriate.

The majority of parents and guardians said they have talked to their children about how to behave on the internet and have taken action to make sure the web sites their children visit meet parental standards.

Parents also credited the internet with helping kids understand current events, express their creativity, and connect with people who have similar interests.

According to the survey, only one in three parents said their children spent too much time online. About one in four parents worry their children aren’t exercising or enjoying the outdoors because they’re preoccupied with the internet, and one in four said the internet distracts kids from schoolwork.

Although four out of five parents said the internet helps their kids in school, nearly three-fourths acknowledged they’ve had “issues” with their children’s online activities.

Parents said the most troubling issues were excessive exposure to advertising or commercialism online; exposure to coarse language or sexual or violent content; and exposure to misleading or bad information.

Although the vast majority of parents have talked to their children about how to be safe, smart, and ethical online, fewer have discussed how to determine the credibility of online information and how to determine if a web site contains biased information.

The survey found that parents of younger children, ages 6 to 10, were less likely to have spoken with their children about safe online behavior.

Overall, 93 percent of parents said they are taking action to make sure their children are visiting the right web sites. Seventy-four percent said they visit sites along with their children, 56 percent reported using filters or other blocking methods, 55 percent visit a web site before allowing their children to visit it, and 53 percent said they receive online recommendations from their child’s school or teachers.

“We recommend that parents talk regularly with their children about their internet use and seek out high-tech advice from trusted sources, speak with children about internet safety and appropriate online behaviors, and look at teachers and schools as partners,” said Anne Zehren, president of Common Sense Media.

“This poll underscores what we at the PTA have advocated for a long time–the vital importance of parents getting involved and engaged in their children’s lives, online and offline,” said Jan Harp Domene, president of the national Parent Teacher Association. She further suggested that parents need simple, specific, and age-appropriate tools and information to help them engage in their kids’ online lives.

The phone-based survey was conducted in mid-August with 2,030 adults, 411 of whom are parents of 6- to 18-year-olds who go online. The survey has sampling-error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Links:

Cable in the Classroom survey

Common Sense Media