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  • Our research suggests that positive parenting characterized by high levels of dialogue may work as a protective factor against Internet Abuse in particular. Tweet This
  • Across 25 European countries, rates of “internet abuse” were higher among adolescents when they lived with one parent rather than two.  Tweet This

My daughters spend too much time on their iPads. My husband and I have struggled against this with what we think are pretty reasonable limits, such as the devices can’t come to the dinner table and have to be off one hour before bedtime.

Research that I undertook with Reynaldo Rivera, David Santos, and Marc Grau Grau showed me that my husband and I have an advantage in parenting through this iTerrain that single parents as a group do not share—namely, that our family shapes how our children make decisions in a way that reduces their risk of “internet abuse.” 

My team of international researchers used adolescents’ reports from the EU Kids Online survey to gauge whether or not they suffered from internet abuse using items like:

  • “I have gone without eating or sleeping because of the internet”; 
  • “I have felt bothered when I cannot be on the internet”;
  • “I have caught myself surfing when I’m not really interested”;
  • “I have spent less time than I should with family, friends, or doing schoolwork because of the time I spent on the internet”; and 
  • “I have tried unsuccessfully to spend less time on the internet.” 

Across 25 European countries, rates of “internet abuse”1 were higher among adolescents when they lived with one parent rather than two.2 However, this family structure differential went away when we accounted for “relational lifestyles.” For example, adolescents who regularly used communication and relationship-based orientations in their decision-making processes had lower rates of Internet Abuse than others who tended toward autonomous decision-making. Because adolescents living in two-parent families were more likely to have communicative lifestyles, they were less to develop problematic online behaviors. In other words, family structure was a significant determinant of Internet Abuse because it influenced relational lifestyles, rather than having any direct effect.

This finding does not point to any particular hypothetical risky situation like when the adolescent does or does not ask a parent if it is ok to give a phone number to someone they met online; instead, it refers to how overall relational lifestyles—specifically patterns of interaction—condition a child’s risk online. 

We created the relational lifestyles measure from adolescent’s reports about general decision-making and correlated it with reports of problematic Internet usage from another portion of the EU Kids Online questionnaire. By doing this, we learned something new about vulnerability to online risk. Other studies have considered family structure and family process, but we learned more when we considered the importance of parent-child communication patterns net of individual and country-level factors.

High-quality parenting includes much more than rules and supervision: parents can contribute to positive socialization through dialogue and active mediation practices. However, even when autonomous adolescents had parental mediation —for example, active co-use of the internet and interaction rules instead of technical restrictions using filters or monitoring software—they tended to decide in solitude and have higher levels of Internet Abuse. In contrast, the “communicatives” group was characterized by high parent–child communication. This suggests that positive parenting characterized by high levels of dialogue in general—not just around technology—may work as a protective factor against Internet Abuse in particular.

By highlighting the importance of children’s relational lifestyles, our study invites policy makers and practitioners to focus on the improvement of children’s and adolescents’ communication and evaluation skills to protect them from the downsides of ubiquitous technology. Good online decisions are the product of rational thinking and interpersonal relationships. Our work also underlines the importance of adopting a character-based theory for dealing with online issues through character development and service-learning programs.

Time-strapped single parents face particular challenges, but parenting efforts could be guided by knowing that time invested in relationship skills may protect against Internet Abuse more effectively than time spent regulating and monitoring. In my dual-parent family, I’m also encouraged by the notion that talking with my kids can help them more than spending money on some technology that would shut down the Internet an hour before bedtime without me having to try.

Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.

1. There is no current consensus regarding how to define problematic internet usage. We define Internet Abuse as a generalized maladaptive internet use and measured it as frequency of problematic practices that resulted in life difficulties and disturbances.

2. The EU Kids Online survey counted any homes where two individuals functioned in parental or caretaking roles as two-parent homes.