How effective are parenting strategies when it comes to meeting people online?

In a recently published study, we examined parenting strategies related to adolescents’ online interactions with other people. Some parents tend to be more restrictive, and set up rules and bans on communication with people online. Others try to explain to their children how to stay safe during such communication and talk with them about their experiences. In our study, we tested whether parents use different strategies when their child is a girl or a boy, younger adolescent or older adolescent. We also investigated how these different strategies relate to adolescents’ behavior, specifically their online communication with people they know only from the internet. The study, authored by Lenka Dědková and Vojtěch Mýlek from IRTIS, was published in Information, Communication & Society.

February 2023 Lenka Dědková Vojtěch Mýlek

Image by pch.vector on Freepik

In this study, we focused on “parental mediation,” which can be broadly understood as any parenting strategy which concerns how children use media (information and communication technologies, ICT, in our case). Parents typically use mediation strategies to teach their children how to use the ICT safely, and to their benefit, while minimizing potential risks or harm. We were specifically interested in how parents approach the children’s social usage of ICT, i.e., how adolescents use ICT to interact with other people. This covers topics like, with whom it is ok to communicate online, who should and should not be among children’s friends on social media sites, or which photos and under which circumstances can be shared online. This is an interesting area because parents and children may see these issues differently. Parents tend to worry a lot about this type if ICT usage - they are concerned over children’s privacy, aggressive comments or possible unwelcomed sexual solicitations; topics frequently covered in media in a largely exaggerated manner. On the other hand, among children, and especially among adolescents, online social interactions are very popular and highly appreciated. Using ICTs, they can stay in touch with friends, deepening their relationships, or find and talk to someone new to share their interests with. It is thus not surprising that using ICTs for social interactions with existing friends or new people is quite common activity (see e.g., the EU Kids Online report: Smahel et al., 2020) and that some children and adolescents also meet people from the internet personally, offline (see our other recent blog post, Mýlek, 2022).

Image by pch.vector on Freepik

Therefore, parents have the uneasy task of balancing their parenting strategies – to protect their children from the potential harm (which is rare but can be severe, see Dedkova, 2015), while not depriving them of the potential benefits from such online interactions. We focused on two types of parenting strategies – restrictions, i.e., forbidding some form of interactions, setting up rules limiting some encounters, and active mediation, i.e., talking with the children about their online interactions, providing advice on how to stay safe during online interactions. We found out parents of 11-17 years old children use both strategies frequently, and more so for daughters and younger children.

Image by pch.vector on Freepik

It seems that parents are more worried about these children, perhaps because they see them as more vulnerable. This is understandable – as noted above, one of the core parental concerns is about sexual solicitations. Parents may be especially worried that young kids will be prematurely exposed to sexually driven interactions. The common fear of “online pedophiles”, who seek children online, adds to these worries. Thus, parents pay more attention to online interactions of young children than for older children, who are more skilled users of ICT, more experienced in social relationships, and more autonomous. Fear of sexual solicitations can also explain why daughters receive more advice and restrictions than sons. Sexual violence is gendered – women are victimized more often than men, and the portrayals of “online pedophiles” in media typically show male perpetrators.

Image by pch.vector on Freepik

We also wondered about how the restrictive and active parenting strategies relate to adolescents’ reported contacts with new people on the internet. We found out that it is largely the restrictive strategy that “works” – more restrictions relate to less contacts with new people. The restrictions seem to work through changing adolescents’ risk perception. In other words, when parents set up restrictive rules about online interactions and do not explain how to safely engage in such interactions, their children tend to perceive interactions with new people online as dangerous, and engage in them less often. Active mediation, on the other hand, had no association to such contacts with new people, or to the perceived risk. However, these findings should not encourage parents to disregard active mediation (talking to their children, explaining the reasons and providing advice) and focus solely on rules and bans. Active mediation is still an essential parenting strategy – it fosters children’s agency and critical thinking, which can help adolescents deal with risky situations. In our study, we did not capture whether the reported contacts with new people were risky or not, or how these contacts looked like; we merely focused on their frequency. It is possible that while active mediation is not associated with the frequency of these interactions, it does play a role in the more nuanced aspects. For instance, it can help children to be more careful when selecting who to communicate with or to make more thoughtful decisions about which information or content is ok to share with others online. The critical aspect to think about is that mere restrictions, without advice or explanation, do not prepare the children for the situations when they interact with others online. Using ICT socially and talking to others (including people not previously known offline) on the internet is inevitable in the current digital age. Children need to be taught how to manage these interactions, they need to understand how to stay safe during them, and how to reap the many benefits these interactions provide – all without exaggerated fear. A balanced approach to parental mediation – combination of active mediation with reasoned restrictions, and also other that this study did not focus on (such as monitoring, supervision) is the great way to help the children in reaping the benefits of what ICT can provide.


Dedkova, L. (2015). Stranger is not always danger: The myth and reality of meetings with online strangers. In P. Lorentz, D. Smahel, M. Metykova, & M. F. Wright (Eds.), Living in the digital age: Self-presentation, networking, playing, and participating in politics (pp. 78-94). Brno: Muni Press. Available here.

Mýlek, V. (2022, November 16). Why do Czech adolescents meet face-to-face with people from the internet? IRTIS blog. [blogpost]. Available here.

Smahel, D., Machackova, H., Mascheroni, G., Dedkova, L., Staksrud, E., Ólafsson, K., Livingstone, S., & Hasebrink, U. (2020). EU Kids Online 2020: Survey results from 19 countries. EU Kids Online.

More articles

All articles

You are running an old browser version. We recommend updating your browser to its latest version.

More info