Would You–Or Do You–Monitor Your Child’s Digital Activity?

In 1994, when I was 13 years old, I did what I suspect many 13 year-old boys might do.  I snuck into my younger sister’s room, found her colorfully-bound private journal, read it, dusted off my fingerprints, and smirked, knowing I now possessed information to get under her skin.  It seemed like the best way to torment my sister, who didn’t deserve the heckling that ensued after I teased her about a boy she clearly liked.  She’d devoted several pages to him in her journal.

Fast forward to 2013.  I’m not sure how many students keep a traditional journal, but many students use social media and the internet to broadcast their thoughts by the day, hour, and even minute.  Many students either don’t think their parents know what’s going on, or they think their parents are oblivious to belligerent online activity.  Many parents are.

Given this fact, to what extent should parents monitor, curtail, or even spy on their child’s cell phone or internet use?

I’m not a parent, but as a teacher, I’m completely aware of the innocent and nefarious ways kids and teenagers use their digital devices.  I’ve heard students talking about Snapchat, where they can take a picture of themselves then send it to a friend or acquaintance, with the file being supposedly self-destructing after 10 seconds.  You can imagine the type of photos some reckless and hormone-riddled teens send to each other.  Some students bully each other to the point of tragedy, described here by blogger Caitlin Kelly over at BroadsideThen there’s Twitter and Instagram, tools many teenagers use to supply the world with endless streams of narcissistic drivel, trash-talk, and “selfies.

On the other hand, students engage in positive online communities relating to their interests.  I’m thinking about my students who are self-described “nerds,” using social media to connect with other anime or gaming aficionados.  “

Here’s some hypothetical scenarios to consider:

  • Imagine you’re the parent of a 15 year-old boy and suspect drug-use, bullying, or other reckless behavior.  Your son has left for the afternoon to hang out with some friends at the bowling alley, and, surprisingly, he left his phone on the kitchen counter. Would you search through your his cell phone records or Twitter feed without he or she knowing it?  What would you do if you found incriminating evidence?
  • Imagine you’re the parent of a 13 year-old girl, and you’ve been in a year-long battle with her over how she dresses.  Despite your best efforts to keep her from dressing in what you deem as racy attire, you suspect her exhibitionist streak is manifesting itself online.  While she heads to living room to complete some algebra homework, you notice her laptop is open and the screen seems to show a picture that can’t be your daughter in a skimpy bathing suit.  Except that it is, and you sneak into her room and scroll down to find other photos more fit for a 21-year old aspiring model.  What do you do?
  • Your child has just received his driver’s license.  You require him to check in whenever he gets to his stated destination, but you’re suspicious that he isn’t always where he says he is.  You’re also aware of small GPS tracking devices that can be affixed to cars.  Do you install a device, to keep secret tabs on where your teen is headed, given his new freedom?

A couple years removed from college, I helped a former sociology professor with field research for her book.  I interviewed parents about their own surveillance.  After conducting and recording 8-10 extensive interviews, it became apparent that those parent-child dynamics based more on trust, versus spying and surveillance, seemed to spawn healthier relationships.  At the time, the ubiquity of cell phones was on the verge of manifesting itself, but the prevalence of digital tools in our lives wasn’t as intense as it is 8 or so years later.  There are certainly new challenges and considerations for parents, regarding the choices about access and surveillance.

As parents and would-be parents, I’m wondering how you might respond to the scenarios above.  Or do you–would you–not allow a teen to have his or her laptop?  How about cell phones–at what age should a child have a phone?  What restrictions or monitoring do you–or would you–employ?  


  1. The mom decided to confront her. Much has happened since I posted this. But it looks like it led to a closer connection between mom and daughter, rather than closing doors between them, as she feared a confrontation might. My girl is 6. I fear what being a teen in the next 10 years will be like.

  2. It’s a possibility, but their probability of engaging in a behaviour will be reduced the harder I make it for them and the more obstacles there are to their engaging in it, and if they do engage in it the frequency will be reduced due to the extra energy expenditure it takes to do so.

    Considering the major attractor to most internet activity is the low energy expenditure required to engage in it raising the expenditure required should greatly reduce the frequency of participation.

  3. Lorna, thanks for stopping by. When we were younger, we did stupid things, but we didn’t feel the impulse to broadcast it to the world, knowingly, or unwittingly. Good luck as you figure out the best way to balance parenting your kids and dealing with their digital connectivity–I’ll be facing the same thing down the line:)

  4. I think you’ve got to confront the daughter, and try to turn the episode into not just an opportunity to discipline, but to teach too, about digital footprints and responsible online behavior. Clearly this daughter is doing what she sees her peers doing, with little regard for the fact that, in a year or two, college admissions officers may be looking to judge her character based on her social media accounts.

  5. One of my former teachers commented on my facebook page, in response to this post. He said he’d support making kids’ digital communication occur in public places in the house–not behind closed doors in bedrooms. Seems like a sound policy to me.

  6. This really was ‘food for thought’ for me as my son is about to reach the age where ‘all’ his friends have phones and iPad/laptops. I just have to hope that the way we brought him up helps guide him to knowing what is and is not right. I got up to some mischief when I was younger and I sometimes cringe at the things we did without my parents finding out. Things I would loose my mind over if I knew my son was doing. But my life experiences made me who I am today and I guess everything in moderation – I can’t say how bad I am going to be in another year or so but I am going to try and keep my wits about me at all times. I will definitely be thinking ahead after reading this post!

  7. This really depends on the kid. I have two teenage boys. We all have iPhones and I do have the Find Phone app installed. However, I don’t have to use it as we keep connected via text messages. I talk to them about respecting their privacy, as long as they earn my trust. If the trust is violated, then the privacy is taken away. This has only happened a couple of times. I think there needs to be consequences to behavior. I love my kids and safety comes first, but they also need to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. We as parents try to be the safety net.

  8. I would strongly advise them not to use social networks in the first place. I don’t think a teenager has enough of a sense of consequences to be putting a permanent record of their thoughts and activities into the public sphere, I know I wasn’t.

    My plan is to set up a mirror of some educational websites on a home intranet and not give my children direct access to the internet. Of course they could still borrow a friend’s computer or something while out of the house but the additional inconvenience should act as a dampener on impulsivity re: internet.

  9. Had a discussion with friends the other night about this. A mom-friend found daughter’s Twitter account. She just got the idea to Google her 16 yr old daughter. Didn’t expect to see tweet about a party at her house, pictures of daughter with bottle of champagne, etc. Do you tell your daughter you found it….or let it go and keep up to date on daughter in the future? Do you tell her and discuss loss of trust, or do you keep her under surveillance?

  10. Thanks for the link — and this important post. I don’t have kids, or teach them, so this is not an issue I grapple with directly. I suspect I’d err on the side of intrusion and protectiveness. I see way too many stories of kids committing suicide and parents seeming helpless.

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