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School Is Out, Screens Are On

By Neil Saul, Rachel Hunkler, and Kelsey Syms

Kids are out of school. Summer has arrived.

This means more unsupervised time leisurely scrolling on social media and playing games online. And we all know teens already spend plenty of time on the internet during the school year. In fact, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that, on average, teens are online almost 9 hours a day.

As the first month of summer vacation, June is the perfect time for parents and teens alike to spend time learning more about safe online behavior. For Internet Safety Month, the McCain Institute’s R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t and SCREEN Hate campaigns have joined together to bring awareness to the risks youth face online and provide important resources to increase their safety.

Today, the World Wide Web feels like the Wild, Wild West. While online spaces can provide youth with opportunities to learn, explore, play, and connect with others, the internet is also full of dangerous risks and uncharted territory.

Teens regularly interact with strangers online, often on social media and across gaming adjacent platforms. According to reporting by Thorn, a leading online safety organization, 1 in 3 minors reported that they message daily with online-only friends. While positive interactions can build friendships across shared interests and provide safe spaces, especially for LGBTQ+ youth, it’s important to remember not all interactions are positive, and not all strangers have the best intentions.

Two of the biggest risks that youth face online are sexual exploitation and recruitment into extremist movements. While the grooming and recruitment processes can look different, there are some striking similarities in the tactics used.

For example, both grooming and recruitment often seem friendly at first, such as casual flirting or sparking a conversation over similar interests or games. Direct messaging apps, often with end-to-end encryption, are commonly used to lure vulnerable kids and teens into a private conversation to build rapport and trust.

From here, predators and extremist recruiters alike will often identify teens’ vulnerabilities and entice them with a sense of community, belonging, and identity. Little by little, youth are drawn in without recognizing that they are being taken advantage of.

What Parents and Caregivers Can Do

Parents understandably feel overwhelmed with how best to keep their kids safe online.  However, parents can rest assured that they do not need to become tech gurus or full-time online researchers to keep their children safe. There are incredible resources that exist to help streamline the process and provide the most critical, basic information necessary.

Two such resources are the McCain Institute’s R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t and SCREEN Hate campaigns. Developed to harmonize and simplify findings from internet safety experts, these campaigns equip parents, caregivers, and teens with the knowledge and resources to help youth maintain personal safety online, particularly around online sexual exploitation as well as online hate and extremism.

Throughout Internet Safety Month, the McCain Institute will be highlighting three important elements of online safety:

  1. Understanding who is most at risk for grooming & recruitment
  2. Gaining familiarity with popular online platforms
  3. Learning how to start conversations about online safety effectively
Who is Most At-Risk

Tweens, teens, and young adults are at a transitional point in their lives, often searching for a sense of belonging, identity, and community.  These vulnerabilities make them particularly at risk of online exploitation and grooming. The heightened emphasis on peer relationships during adolescence makes the sense of belonging that extremist communities can provide especially enticing to this age group.

Members of minority groups and populations are also most at-risk for exploitation and grooming. This is especially true for members of the LGBTQ+ community – a staggering 91% of LGBTQ+ youth report viewing online grooming as common. Racial minorities are also amongst the populations with the highest risk. According to Thorn, domestic minor sex trafficking survivors of a racial minority accounted for 74 percent of those who were affected by online enticements and grooming.

Social acceptance and a sense of belonging also play an important role in teens’ and young adults’ susceptibility to extremist beliefs and participation in hate groups. They often initially join an extremist community out of a desire for belonging and not because they necessarily agree with its hateful ideologies. These factors, among others, make younger people especially more vulnerable.

Yet these statistics capture merely a snapshot of the pervasiveness of this kind of dangerous activity. From what we know about reporting, these statistics account for only a fraction of the exploitation, grooming, and exposure to hatred online.

The Most Popular Platforms Used by Teens

Parents and caregivers are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding where their teens and young adults are spending time online. The landscape changes faster than they can keep up with. According to recent research commissioned by the McCain Institute, gaming, and livestreaming platforms are a critical blind spot for parents. Concerningly, these are also the platforms that teens are most likely to use when chatting with strangers.

Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are among the most common online platforms where teens and young adults are exposed to hateful content. Popular gaming platforms like Discord and Twitch, and messaging apps like Telegram and Rocket Chat often use features like anonymous chat communities and encrypted messaging that make it more difficult to monitor many conversations. Users can share unvetted information, allowing hateful rhetoric and conspiracy theories to spread unchecked. For example, according to an ADL report, 15% of young gamers reported exposure to white supremacist ideologies in 2022. It’s imperative that parents know what platforms their children are using and how.

The R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t and SCREEN Hate campaigns offer guidance (here and here, respectively) on the safety risks present on the most common apps and platforms, ways to protect personal data, and tips for parents to better understand safety mechanisms on each platform.

How to talk about online safety

The most important thing a parent can do is sit down and have an open, age-appropriate conversation with their children about online safety. Caregivers need to talk with kids about what platforms they’re using, whom they engage with, how, and most importantly, what red flags of unsafe spaces or interactions look like.

Findings from the R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t campaign indicate that over 90% of caregivers believe conversations about safe online behavior are important, yet 36% of caregivers say they have not had this type of conversation. We know – it can be difficult, maybe even awkward, to have conversations about safe online behavior, but 1 in 10 teens have indicated they are waiting for their parent or caregiver to start the conversation. To help, R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t and SCREEN Hate both offer conversation starters and resources (here and here, respectively).

The reality is that kids, teens, and young adults are growing up in a digital world. In the same way that we were taught not to talk to strangers as kids, these conversations around online safety, hate, grooming, sexting, etc., need to be normalized, open, and frequent. Remember, this is not a one-time conversation. When it comes to online safety, parents should stay involved and stay alert.


Internet Safety Month is about helping teens and adults understand how to navigate the digital world in a safe way and recognize the warning signs when someone or something makes them feel uncomfortable. As the school bell rings for the final time and parents make fun summer plans, we encourage them also to set aside time to learn more about how to help young people safely navigate their increasingly digital worlds. The lazy days of summer provide a great opportunity for parents to have critical conversations with their kids about internet safety.


About R.E.A.L. Friends Don’t 
The R.E.AL. Friends Don’t campaign increases awareness and educates parents, caregivers, and young people about online safety, and empowers parents to protect their children from harmful content, grooming, or online exploitation. The campaign employs an integrated suite of activities to reach those most at risk ranging from an online resource hub to billboards to influencer-driven social media campaigns, and public art. 

About SCREEN Hate 
SCREEN Hate is an initiative that seeks to increase the online safety of youth by raising awareness of their risks of exposure to hateful and violent messaging. The campaign educates caregivers, concerned adults, friends, and teachers about the platforms and tactics violent extremists use to spread hate online. It provides tips for discussing these topics with youth as well as resources for prevention and assistance. 

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Neil Saul, Rachel Hunkler, and Kelsey Syms
Publish Date
June 8, 2023