When Parents Rank Internet Safety and Sexting as More Concerning than Alcohol Abuse and Driving Accidents, We’ve got A Problem

As a mother of four, I’m acutely aware of all the things parents worry about when raising kids, but I’m concerned when research again tells us that parents are more worried about online actions than risks like teen pregnancy, alcohol abuse and driving accidents.

We simply have to stop the fear mongering.  Yes there are risks online, and I’m among those who are quick to point out the risks – but not for people to panic over. The goal of helping consumers identify risks to their online safety, security and privacy is to help them make informed choices about how they use tools, how they pressure companies to step up, and how they let their elected officials know what they want to see regulated.

A quick look at the results of a new poll by the University of Michigan shows how concerns trend by parent and ethnicity.   To make comparisons easier, I’ve used background colors to show where different concerns fall by group, and put those related to online safety in red text (while not all bullying is cyberbullying, I chose to include this in the internet category given all the news cyberbullying has generated in the press).

While every parent will have their own priority ranking of concerns, the likelihood of death or permanent physical injury is dramatically less in online risks than with the other items listed here.

Yes, your child could meet a sexual predator online, and some do with tragic consequences. But the risk is minor compared to the 7% of young women aged 18–24 who had had sex before age 20 and reported that their first sexual experience was involuntary – in most cases the exploitation is from someone they know[i].

Yes, a hefty percent of youth are sexting (so are their parents) and it can have enormously embarrassing consequences – and in at least a few cases led to suicide.  But compared to the fact that each year almost 750,000 U.S. women aged 15–19 become pregnant, it pales by comparison.  Add to that the fact that young people aged 13–24 made up about 17% of all those who received a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in 2008 and hopefully perspectives become more nuanced[ii].

Yes there are real risks and even deadly consequences with extreme internet ‘addiction’ – but it is irrational to place these risks side by side with the 10% of teens using ecstasy, or the 25% of kids who begin drinking alcohol at age 12, or other drugs.

The poll led my curiosity into taking a hard look at other teen risk data, which is valuable to any larger risk discussion.  Consider the following:

  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, accounting for more than one in three deaths in this age group.[iii] In 2009, eight teens ages 16 to 19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries. Per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash.

In 2009, about 3,000 teens in the United States aged 15–19 were killed and more than 350,000 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor-vehicle crashes. [iv]

Young people ages 15-24 represent only 14% of the U.S. population. However, they account for 30% ($19 billion) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among males and 28% ($7 billion) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among females.[v]

  • Drug abuse is up. In the last three years ecstasy use among teenagers has jumped 67%. One in 10 teens now uses it. Marijuana use is up 22%, with 40% of teens now smoking pot, according to The Partnership at Drugfree.org.

Nearly 25% of high school seniors reportedly using illicit drugs in the last 30 days,[vi]  more than 33% have used drugs in the past year, and over half have tried illegal drugs at some point.

For the first time since 1981, more 12th graders have used marijuana than cigarettes in the previous month – that equates to more than 1 in 5 seniors.  1 out of every 16 seniors smokes pot daily.

In 2008, an estimated 20.1 million Americans ages 12 or older (8.0%) were current (past-month) illicit drug users[vii].

  • Alcohol abuse is up. This April, the Partnership at Drugfree.org and MetLife Foundation conducted research that indicates alcohol abuse is again increasing among teens.  25% of teens have had a drink by age 12, though the average age to start drinking is 14 years old.  A whopping 71% of teens have tried a drink before leaving high school[viii].

The research found that weak perceptions of risk and a perceived “normalization” of underage drinking were behind the increase in adolescent alcohol use[ix].

  • Almost half of teens (45%) reported they do not see a “great risk” in heavy daily drinking.
  • Only 31% of teens strongly disapprove of teens and peers their age getting drunk.
  • 73% report having friends who drink alcohol at least once a week.
  • While the primary reason teens reported drinking alcohol is “fun” (60%), a significant number of teens reported using alcohol to “to forget their troubles” (32%), to “deal with problems at home” (24%), or to “deal with the pressures and stress of school” (20%).

The survey underscored the finding that teens that begin drinking before the age of 15 are much more likely than other teens to develop problems with alcohol as adults.

According to the CDC, about 90% of the alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 occurs in the form of binge drinking, which, experts say, peaks at age 19. Approximately 200,000 adolescents are hospitalized each year for drinking-related incidents, and more than 1,700 college students die from them[x].

Despite declines in the number of young people involved in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities, more than 3 people under the age of 21 die each day in alcohol-impaired driving crashes[xi].

Teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases don’t appear to be rising (in some cases they are dramatically lower, but the statistics are nevertheless sobering. 

 

  • 13% of teens have had vaginal sex by age 15[xii].
  • Seven percent of young women aged 18–24 who had had sex before age 20 report that their first sexual experience was involuntary[xiii].
  • Young people aged 13–24 made up about 17% of all those who received a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in 2008[xiv].
  • Although 15–24-year-olds represent only one-quarter of the sexually active population, they account for nearly half (9.1 million) of the 18.9 million new cases of STIs each year. [xv]
  • Each year, almost 750,000 U.S. women aged 15–19 become pregnant. Two-thirds of all teen pregnancies occur among 18–19-year-olds[xvi].
  • Eighty-two percent of teen pregnancies are unplanned; they account for about one-fifth of all unintended pregnancies annually[xvii].

Internet risks are real, and it is critical that we educate consumers of all ages on the opportunities, the risks, the tools, and the responsibilities they have when online. But it is absurd to imagine that internet risks are placing children at more risk than driving accidents, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, child abuse, school violence, and so on.

Media hype leads to fear. Fear leads to kneejerk reactions and misplaced focus. Parents, pay attention to online risks but don’t take your eye off the biggest issues teens face.

For the most part the internet is a safer place than the streets.

Linda


[ii] Weinstock H et al., Sexually transmitted diseases among American youth: incidence and prevalence estimates, 2000, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2004, 36(1):6–10.

[iii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2010). National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (producer). [Cited 2010 Oct 18].

[iv] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2010). National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (producer). [Cited 2010 Oct 18].

[v] NHTSA[2009]. Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), 2009. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis.

[vii] SAMHSA

[xi] Source: NHTSA/FARS, 2010

[xiv] 12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HIV Surveillance Report, 2008, Vol. 20, 2010, <http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/surveillance/resources/reports>, accessed Oct. 26, 2010.

[xv] Weinstock H et al., Sexually transmitted diseases among American youth: incidence and prevalence estimates, 2000, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2004, 36(1):6–10.

[xvi] Kost K, Henshaw S and Carlin L, U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions: National and State Trends and Trends by Race and Ethnicity, 2010, <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/USTPtrends.pdf> accessed Jan. 26, 2010.

[xvii] Finer LB et al., Disparities in rates of unintended pregnancy in the United States, 1994 and 2001, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2006, 38(2):90–96.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: