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1/31/16blog post

supervising your child's digital world

child texting 2Should you secretly monitor your child’s text messages, phone calls and social media activities in order to keep them safe?

That’s a dilemma confronted by parents as they try to balance safety with honoring their child’s privacy and independence.

A recent Pew Research Center survey of parents of 13- to 17-year-olds found that 61 percent of parents check the websites visited by their teens, 48 percent review phone call records or text messages and 56 percent follow their kids on social media. It’s unclear whether such supervision was done covertly or with the knowledge of their teen.

Apps such as TeenSafe allow parents to secretly monitor their children’s text messages, phone calls, browsing history and Instagram posts. Those in favor of such spying make a strong argument. Safety trumps privacy. The dangers of the digital world are too overwhelming for most teens to navigate without parental guidance.

The margin for error is small. A sexually explicit photo sent impulsively can have lifelong consequences for a child. Parents have an obligation to help their kids become responsible digital citizens. They can only do so if they know what their kids are doing. Just as we wouldn’t give our teen permission to go wherever they wanted in the real world, why would we allow them such freedom in the digital world?

I understand that perspective, but it’s wrong. The issue isn’t whether monitoring should occur, but rather whether or not it should be done in secret. Except in extraordinary circumstances, you shouldn’t violate your child’s privacy.

Our relationships with others, whether with our kids, spouse, or friends, are built upon a foundation of trust and honesty. The secrecy and deceit that occur when you spy on your child act like an acid that burns away that trust. The advantages of spying aren’t worth the damages it has on your long-term relationship with your kids. Don’t do it.

However, while secret monitoring is wrong, you should still actively supervise your child’s electronic world, but let them know what you are doing. The degree of monitoring should be consistent with your child’s level of responsibility.

When preteens get their first smart phones, the monitoring should be regular. Read their text messages and provide feedback on any inappropriate usage. Your child’s participation on social media should be contingent with you having complete access as well. Apps like TeenSafe are great, if you are honest with your child about what you are doing.

You need to decrease this monitoring as your teen gets older, your message is simple. “Your freedom and privacy increase with your level of responsibility.” Keeping our kids safe doesn’t have to come at the cost of ruining our relationship with them.