National Survey Shows Parents Deeply Fearful About the Internet's Influence on Their Children

Ron Ozio | ozio@pobox.upenn.edu | 215-898-8658
Monday, May 3, 1999

PHILADELPHIA - A national survey of parents in computer households indicates parents are deeply fearful about the Internet's influence on their children. The survey project - led by Dr. Joseph Turow of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania - shows 78% are "strongly" or "somewhat" concerned that their children might give away personal information on the Internet. An equal percentage fear children might view sexually explicit material.

"Parents are juggling the dream and the nightmare of the Internet at the same time," said Dr. Turow. The full results of the survey will be presented at the Annenberg Public Policy Center's Conference on Internet and the Family, being held Tuesday, May 4, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Researchers found that nearly two-thirds of parents (64%) believe the Internet can cause their children to become isolated, while only 35% say the Internet can have a community-building influence. Half of the parents interviewed (49%) claim using the Internet might interfere with parents' ability to teach values and beliefs, and 42% believe too much Internet use can cause children to develop anti-social behavior.

Parents also believe, however, that the Internet is an essential tool with positive potential:

  • 59% feel children without Internet access are at a disadvantage compared to their peers.
  • 75% say the Internet is a place for children to discover fascinating, useful things.
  • 72% say the Internet helps their children with their schoolwork.

The survey also finds that 32% of American parents with online connections are using protective software, a sign that a substantial proportion of parents are taking active strides to shield their children from what parents consider harmful content.

Focusing on households with computers to determine what factors contribute to having an online connection, the survey shows that attitudes towards the Internet are not strong predictors of whether households will obtain an online connection. In fact, online and offline parents showed very similar attitudes toward the Web. The strongest determining factor of online use in the home was parents' use of the medium outside the home.

The two-part report from Penn's Annenberg Public Policy Center also contained an analysis of one year of news stories about the Internet drawn from 12 major newspapers. The study shows news reports describe the Internet as a "Jekyll and Hyde" phenomenon, a place where crime, sexual predators and potentially objectionable materials abound, but also a necessary tool for children. Sex crimes regarding children were featured in one of every four articles about the Internet. Two of every three stories focused on the negative aspects of the Internet, mainly sex crimes, pornography and privacy invasion.

"The news media's portrayal of the Internet is particularly significant, because it directly reflects the attitudes of parents, and it may help them create them," Dr. Turow said.

Copies of the full report will be available May 4 at the Annenberg Public Policy Center's web site or by calling 202-879-6700.