Being a parent has always been challenging. During all eras of American history, parents have fretted about their kids’ health, safety, and well-being. But as our society evolves, parents’ biggest concerns have naturally shifted.
As part of our ongoing research about family safety and parenting, we asked thousands of U.S. parents more than 45 questions about raising children, including what keeps them up at night and what they consider appropriate for children.
Our research participants encompassed a diverse range of ages from 18 to 74 years and represented various racial backgrounds. This broad spectrum ensured that the collected insights reflect a rich tapestry of parental experiences. We distilled their experiences, opinions, and concerns into seven charts below.
1. The internet is parents’ primary safety concern for their children.
In a technological era where concerns like strangers, school shootings, and car accidents hold genuine weight, one prevailing problem supersedes them all, conveniently found within the confines of homes: the internet and social media. An overwhelming 70 percent of parents disclosed that social media and the internet are their foremost apprehensions. These are trailed by worries regarding safe sex for teenagers and the concept of body autonomy.
While issues like firearms (43 percent) and pools (50 percent) also evoke concern among parents, their prominence isn't as marked, possibly due to their less pervasive nature than the internet. As supported by federal data, nearly all children aged three to 18 possess internet access at home.
2. Parents’ fears evolve as children grow up.
The internet can be dangerous for children for many reasons: inappropriate content, online predators, cyberbullying, and data security issues. Consequently, parents across all age groups above three years old express concerns about the internet. Significantly, for parents with children aged seven to 15, the internet emerges as their primary worry.
For parents with children under six, concerns about strangers loom large. While these fears recede as children grow into teenagers, apprehensions about strangers continue to linger for parents with children aged seven to 12.
Parents begin to show concern about bullying when their children are about four. This concern remains among the top five worries for parents across all age groups except the youngest (0-3), as bullying behaviors can start even during preschool years. Concerns about bullying peak among parents of elementary school kids, with a notable 69 percent expressing significant worry about this issue.
Regarding driving safety, parents of driving-age teens are primarily concerned. This concern slightly outweighs their worries about safe sex for their teenagers, which is validated by statistics indicating that teens face higher accident rates than other age groups.
3. Despite significant concerns about the internet, many parents do not limit kids’ online access.
Although 70 percent of parents highlighted internet and social media as primary concerns, nearly 25 percent revealed not using parental controls to regulate their children's online activities. Nonetheless, parental controls are more common for parents of younger children. By age four, one in three children gains access to smartphones capable of downloading apps and accessing the internet, with smartphone access nearly universal by age 13.
That said, parental controls are much more common among parents of younger children. By the age of four, one in three kids has access to a smartphone that can download apps and access the internet, and smartphone access becomes nearly universal by age 13.
Children tend to gain more independence in their digital activities as they grow. This might be due to parents believing that their teenagers are more skilled with technology than they actually are. Regardless of the cause, many parents of children aged four to 12 use some form of parental control. However, by the time their children reach 16, around 60 percent of parents have stopped using tools to restrict their teenagers' technology usage.
Similarly, as children age, parents tend to monitor their social media activities less. While over 60 percent of parents closely watch 10-12-year-olds' social media accounts, only 26 percent do the same for kids aged 16-18.
For parents who apply some level of control over their children's internet and social media use, limiting screen time is not a widely adopted approach across various age groups. Nonetheless, child-development experts recommend avoiding screen time entirely for children under two and limiting it to an hour daily until age five.
4. The majority of parents post photos of their kids on social media.
Despite concerns about children's exposure to social media, many parents post information about their kids online. Most parents reported posting about their children on social media, with 51 percent admitting they never sought their child's consent.
Almost all parents who do post about their kids on social media share pictures. Experts have suggested this could put children at increased risk of ID theft, kidnapping, or digital kidnapping in which children’s images are used to create new social media accounts.
Following some safety guidelines is essential for parents who wish to maintain their social media activity and share pictures of their children. These include ensuring only friends can view the images and establishing Google alerts for your child’s name. Alongside these precautions, practicing wise social media habits, such as refraining from sharing photos containing personal details like addresses or phone numbers, is crucial.
5. Nearly 1 in 3 parents regret allowing children to use social media.
While every child is different regarding when they’re mature enough for a mobile phone, about one in three parents had regrets about letting their children use social media too soon. Additionally, 25 percent felt their children had acquired mobile phones prematurely.
Considering our earlier findings that indicated most parents are granting their teenagers considerable freedom with technology and engaging in limited social media oversight, these results are concerning. Furthermore, while 75 percent of parents express confidence that their child would confide in them if they were experiencing cyberbullying, the reality is that only 31 percent of kids disclose their online experiences to their parents.
6. The typical parent believes kids can have cell phones starting at age 12.
Beyond digital safety, we allowed parents to voice their perspectives on age-appropriate activities or topics for children. Their responses offer an intriguing glimpse into American parenting, where conformity to expert guidance sometimes aligns and sometimes diverges.
Of course, the internet is a key concern among parents, and it is difficult to know when children are mature enough to use it.
Typically, parents in our study said 12 was the age at which it’s appropriate for kids to have their own mobile phones. Though expert recommendations vary, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, recently said children shouldn’t have smartphones until they reach high school. This is typically around age 14.
While child health experts recommend limiting time using screens for young children, the typical parent said it was appropriate for 8-year-olds to have their own tablets. Parents seemed more comfortable with tablets than phones. One reason could be their proliferation in educational settings and the fact that they are more likely not to have internet access if they aren’t Wi-Fi-connected or lack a data plan.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says children should not sleep with devices like smartphones, TVs, and computers in their bedrooms before age 12. Yet on average, parents felt 10-year-olds could have their own TV.
Given the hazards that children (and adults) can encounter online, parents tend to be more conservative when it comes to when it’s appropriate for kids to have unsupervised internet access. Most parents chose 15 as the right age.
Most social media platforms require users, as stated in their terms and conditions, to be at least 13 years of age, though it’s easy for users to fake their age. Given that social media is the biggest concern area for parents, it’s understandable that they tend to want social media limited to teens. The median age they selected was 14, and 84 percent of parents said social media is only appropriate for those over 13.
By age two, parents can introduce children to fire safety and prevention and what to do if a fire breaks out at home. Experts acknowledge that holding a young child’s attention can be difficult, which is why many local fire departments offer tours and educational activities for toddlers and preschoolers. The most common answer among parents we talked to was 4 years of age, much higher than experts recommend.
There is little consensus on when children should learn about firearm safety. The National Rifle Association, for example, suggests that children as young as six years old could learn about gun safety if they’ve demonstrated good safety behavior in other areas. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics points to studies that suggest skills-based gun safety programs do not reduce gun handling by children. Typically, parents felt age eight was appropriate for children to learn about gun safety. You can never start too early with firearm safety — even if you don’t have one in your home, that might not be true for your child’s friends or family.
The research also revealed that parents generally endorsed children attending sleepovers at a friend's house around age 10. Child development experts say the decision depends on their maturity and independence levels and what information you have about their friends and their families.
Being alone at home
Experts agree that outside of very young children, the age at which a kid can be left alone before or after school depends mainly on the child's maturity level. That said, a few states do have laws regarding the minimum age at which a child can be left home alone — eight years in Maryland, 10 in Oregon, and 14 in Illinois. Among our group of parents, the most common answer was 12.
Age-appropriate sex education is a contentious topic in the U.S. today, but the typical parent believed introducing sex education materials around 11 years old was suitable. This corresponds with the typical age when children begin experiencing bodily changes and becoming more curious about these topics.
Riding in the front passenger seat
Parents generally believed that 12-year-old children could sit in the front seat of a car. However, traffic safety officials recommend all children younger than 13 ride in the back seat, regardless of their size. One in three parents we talked to said kids could sit in the front seat starting at age 12, while 16 percent said 13 and 20 percent said 10.
Going to malls or movies without parents
Around the ages of 14 to 15, parents commonly felt that their children could go to the mall or movie theater without an adult. Many U.S. shopping malls have rules barring those under 18 from being in the mall without an adult over 21. Sometimes, these rules apply only on the weekends, but parents should consult the regulations where they live.
Finally, most parents believed that 15- and 16-year-olds could fly alone on a plane, work at a job, have their own bank debit card, and go on dates. At these ages, children are nearing young adulthood and gaining more exposure to real-world experiences, financial responsibility, and personal relationships. It can be good for teens to have opportunities to practice some adult responsibilities like working and saving money.
7. Parents feel schools are the unsafest places for their children.
While most of the findings discussed in this analysis relate to digital or home safety, kids spend most of their waking days at school. Our research shows that parents’ positive feelings about how safe their kids are at school decline with child age.
For parents of 16-18-year-olds, 72 percent say their kids are safe at school, and those parents are more likely to say their kids are safe at a friend’s house, in the neighborhood or at home. Across all age groups, the home is rated safest for children.
Parental concerns regarding school safety could stem from many issues, such as the rising number of school shootings, bullying, the implementation of metal detectors and active shooter drills, negative peer pressure, and children’s exposure to unfamiliar adults who may work in the schools.
And parents of vulnerable children, such as those in the LGBTQ+ community, may also feel their kids are unsafe. According to the ACLU, more than 200 state bills have been proposed or passed this year to target LGBTQ+ rights in schools. Unfortunately, many schools lack adequate mental health support funding, which may also concern parents.
The average parent gets inundated with advice (or criticism) about their parenting choices on a near-daily basis, and while some of it is probably good advice, it’s hard to know when to take it to heart. This research shows that despite different parenting styles, the average American parent simply wants to do what is best for their child’s physical and emotional well-being — even if it goes against the grain.
We surveyed over 2,500 Americans with at least one child about what they consider age-appropriate for children, what safety measures they take, and many other matters related to parenting. Our survey was conducted online.