Parents should seek to promote the autonomy of their adolescents when monitoring their media consumption, according to new research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. The study found that adolescents were less secretive and showed less signs of aggression when parents were actively involved in conversations regarding media use.

“As researchers, we know that the best way for parents to learn about what their teenage children are doing is for the child to disclose that information to the parent. So far we know quite a bit about what promotes general disclosure, but much less about specific disclosure related to media use,” said study author Laura M. Padilla-Walker, a Camilla E. Kimball Professor and associate dean at Brigham Young University.

“Given the media saturated society that teens are growing up in, parents being aware of what teens are viewing and how often seems an important variable to consider. Thus, we explored how parenting was related to how often teens disclosure or keep secrets about media, and how this in turn was associated with prosocial and aggressive behaviors.”

The findings of the study came from a nationally representative sample of 945 adolescents. The participants completed a brief online survey, in which they answered questions about their parent’s media monitoring behaviors, their own secrecy about media use, and their behavior toward family members, among other things.

The researchers found that the monitoring strategies employed by parents were linked to the adolescents’ secrecy about their media usage. The participants tended to be more secretive when their parents simply set limits on their media viewing compared to when their parents actively monitored their media usage and discussed it with them.

“I think the biggest take-home is that if you are controlling about how you monitor your child’s media use, s/he is more likely to keep secrets from you regarding media. However, the more autonomy supportive you are, even if you are placing restrictions on your child’s media use, the more likely they are to openly disclose media use,” Padilla-Walker explained to PsyPost.

“The way this would look is to be sure to communicate with your child the reasons behind the media rules you have and let your child help you to make those rules (i.e., joint decision making). If the child feels like they are on board with media rules and agree with the reasons behind them, they will be much more likely to be open and honest about their media use, which is then associated with more helping toward family members.”

The researchers also found that this type of parenting was associated with reduced relational aggression (such as using gossip and social exclusion to harm others) in the adolescents.

This finding suggests “that media disclosure and secrecy are not just good outcomes in and of themselves, but also seem to be associated with other behaviors we care about (e.g., helping behavior, aggression). In other words, the implications of promoting children’s disclosure of media use move beyond just patterns of media use,” Padilla-Walker said.

The study controlled for child gender, household income, and violent media content. But like all research, it includes some limitations. “This was cross-sectional data, so certainly future research should address this longitudinally,” Padilla-Walker said.

The study, “Associations between parental media monitoring style, information management, and prosocial and aggressive behaviors“, was authored by Laura M. Padilla-Walker, Laura A. Stockdale, Daye Son, Sarah M. Coyne, and Sara C. Stinnett.