It's a well-known parental habit to underestimate the trouble your own child gets into.
For some, it's always "other people's kids" who smoke, drink, do drugs or have sex. Turns out, little Johnny and Jane may not be the responsible digital citizens many parents believe them to be, either.
The Center for Cyber Safety and Education, based in Clearwater, Florida, commissioned a study last year that looked at how children in grades four through eight use the internet -- and how their parents perceive them to be using it.
Patrick Craven, director of the center, said the organization hired Shugoll Research to survey 192 students and their parents in four cities: Los Angeles, St. Louis, Baltimore and Bethesda, Maryland. While the sample size is too small to generalize to a national population, the results reveal a sizable disconnect in parents' perception and children's actual use of the internet.
Even in this relatively young subset, nearly half said they had used the internet at 11 p.m. or later on school nights, in ways other than doing homework. A third of the kids surveyed, and nearly half of the middle schoolers, said they had been on at midnight or later. Only 11 percent of parents perceived that their children were online that late at night.
That's just one parental blind spot the survey discovered.
About 3 in 10 students admitted they use the internet in ways their parents would not approve of. For the middle schoolers, this rose to 4 out of 10. What were the forbidden online activities they reported doing? Lying about their age to get onto adult websites, listening to or downloading music with adult content, watching movies or programs meant for adults, searching the internet for adult topics and using a webcam to Facetime with a stranger.
Four out of 10 children in the study said they had connected with a stranger online, and more than half of those kids told the stranger they were older than their real age.
When parents were asked if they thought their children were downloading and listening to music with adult content, 63 percent said yes. Actually, only 31 percent of students said they did this. The same was true for movies with adult content: Twice as many parents thought their children were watching them, compared to what children reported doing.
But when parents were asked if they thought their child had chatted with and tried to meet someone they'd met online, only 2 percent thought so. Fifteen percent of kids admitted they had.
"Parents are kind of missing the point," Craven said. This study wasn't even done with high schoolers, he said: We're talking about elementary and middle school-aged kids.
"The results prompted us to create all new materials for parents on our website," he said. The organization's site, safeandsecureonline.org, features a section for parents and guardians, which includes several suggestions:
-- Create a charging station: a spot where everyone's devices get plugged in at night. "You have to get (devices) out of the room," Craven said. Ninety percent of children said they had a device to access the internet in their room at night. Nearly 4 in 10 students said they had been really tired at school because of late-night internet use; a few arrived tardy or missed school due to it.
-- Consider apps or parental controls offered on family plans by wireless providers that allow parents to turn off the Wi-Fi connection in the house at certain times.
-- Make discussions about internet use an ongoing conversation, not a one-time thing. Nearly all children in the survey acknowledged that their parents or school had taught them about internet safety. But many parents have weak follow-through on rules and oversight.
-- Join the social media sites your children and their friends use. In this age group, the most popular ones were reportedly Instagram, Snapchat and Vine, with moderate numbers of kids also using Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Ask.fm. You don't have to be an active social media user, but being familiar with how the sites work and periodically checking in is a good idea. "If they know you are on, it will make an impact," Craven said.
-- Play your child's video games with him or her occasionally. Gaming these days has a social media aspect, and involves conversations with other people -- often strangers. While you may be good about picking games rated for your child's age, the in-game conversations with other players may not be age-appropriate.
There's a thin line between regularly talking about online use and lecturing or nagging. Tweens and teens are masters at tuning out the latter.
If this survey is any indication, these conversations require far better follow-through by parents.