The results of this study illustrate several key points regarding promoting safe internet use among youth. Findings suggest general agreement among key stakeholders for teaching internet safety at a young age, and for identifying parents as primary teachers of this topic.
First, our findings regarding the suggested age to begin teaching online safety may seem younger than expected. The suggested age range of 6 to 8 years identified by participants suggests that internet safety education could begin in early grade school, around 1st
grade. However, given our current society’s focus on technology, it is likely that children are being introduced to computers at ever-younger ages. Data from 2010 suggests that almost 20% of 8 to 10 year olds spend time on social networking sites daily, in the past three years it seems likely that this percentage has grown [20
]. Timing safety education with the onset of internet use may allow for the concomitant development of computer skills and safety skills. As with many health teachings such as nutrition or sexual behavior, providing education to children before dangers can arise is a key strategy to help youth integrate these lessons into their lives and prevent negative consequences.
Second, our findings include a general agreement among key stakeholders that parents should hold the primary responsibility for internet safety education. These findings are supported by a recent study in which teachers felt that parents should have the primary role in teaching this topic [27
]. Interestingly, we found that while parents all
reported that they regularly or sometimes teach internet safety, only 75% of adolescents reported hearing from parents on this topic. These conflicting findings may be due to social desirability on the part of parents reporting their teaching efforts, or that teens may underreport their parents counseling efforts as they may not recognize parent attempts to discuss these difficult topics. Previous work has found a similar disconnect between parent and pediatrician reporting of counseling on risk behaviors [28
Finally, our findings suggest that parents are willing teachers in providing internet safety education, and that many report some experience in this area. However, while parents may be candidates to guide their children’s digital lives, some parents may feel underprepared for the task of instructing their children who have grown up as “digital natives.” Thus, health care providers and public health educators may have an unique opportunity to support parents by providing resources, guidance and support. Pediatricians who see adolescent patients have the opportunity to serve an important and perhaps familiar role. As with many other topics of health supervision including safety, nutrition and fitness, parents are the primary source of education for their children. However, in many of these health topics, clinicians and health educators are trusted sources for parents on how to talk with their children about these issues. Some child health providers may feel untrained or unprepared to answer questions about internet safety or cyberbullying given that these are relatively recent health concerns about which much remains unknown. Pediatricians can use American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines to recommend parental supervision of internet activities, decreasing or eliminating isolated screen time (ie, moving the computer to a public space), and having open discussions about the potential dangers of electronic media [23
]. Pediatricians and educators can also partner with schools or other community groups, such as law enforcement, to provide consistent and reinforced messages about internet safety.
Limitations to this study include the regional focus of our data collection. Our study aimed to draw representation of populations of teachers, clinicians, parents and adolescents within our region, the excellent response rates and distribution of participants within each category support that our results are generalizable within our region. However, there are other groups who may engage in teaching internet safety that were not included in this study such as churches and community groups. Second, it is notable that our study did not provide data on what methods would be best to provide internet safety education, this is a logical next step for future study. Third, we did not specify in the context of this study whether online safety should include additional technologies such as cell phones or texting. Fourth, data was collected by self-report, thus recall bias or overestimation of experience or willingness could have impacted our findings. Based on the varied stakeholders included in this study, there was some variation in data collected from each group.