Are You Spying on Your Kid?

Parents might be invading privacy and risking their kids' trust when checking up on kids' texts and emails. By Regan McMahon
Are You Spying on Your Kid?

Technology has been a great boon to parenting -- we can now keep in touch with our kids via cell phone when they're out of reach, send a handy text when we we're running late to pick them up, even see photos of them posted on a summer camp website that reassure us they're having a good time. 

But is all the access we have -- thanks to our gadgets and the Web -- helping our kids grow into independent, responsible people? Or are we crossing the line from caring to intruding? Is it about safety ... or snooping? My teen daughter unfriended me when she felt I'd been checking her Facebook page too often, and she changed her handle on Twitter when she didn't want me reading her tweets!

Here are a few guidelines for a common sense approach to tech-assisted parenting that balances safety concerns with kids' privacy and helps foster autonomy and trust while staying connected. 

Be a good "friend" on Facebook
Some parents insist on being their kid's "friend" to make sure no inappropriate language or photos are posted. (A good rule of thumb for adults as well as kids: Don't post anything you wouldn't want your mom to see.)

Parents have a right to keep their kids safe, but it could hurt your relationship if your kids feel you're always "spying" on them. Be discreet, and choose your battles. If you see some posts tipping toward cyberbullying, talk to your kid offline about that to cut it off at the pass. And if you spot kids planning an unauthorized party, it may be time to step in. But try to resist checking constantly and adding your comments to posts by kids who believe they're talking among themselves. It will feel like an intrusion to them and make you look like a dork who needs to get a life.

Don't let PowerSchool overpower you
Online services like PowerSchool and School Loop post grades and assignments as a useful tool for schools and families. But if you're constantly checking it, you may be sending a message that all you care about is grades and putting undue pressure on your young student.

I know of one parent who leaves her son a PowerSchool printout every afternoon when he comes home from school, which makes him feel harassed and discouraged. Keep in mind that a low grade on a computer report doesn't always take into account an authorized extension on a missing assignment or the teacher's failure to record a quiz grade. Always check in with your kid, not just the online report. 

Have some texting boundaries
Texting is the primary mode of communication among tweens and teens. But that doesn't mean you have to be part of the conversation. Of course it depends on the family, but some kids may find parental text chatting intrusive.

Consider using texting mainly for the essentials, such as asking what time your kid will be home or telling him where to meet you. And avoid texting when kids are in class at school, unless it's really urgent. 

Respect the privacy of kids' digital conversations
In another era, girls shared their secrets and deepest feelings in a diary they kept under lock and key, and the fur would fly if parents violated that lock. Today, boys and girls seem to share everything in texts and tweets, which are accessible to parents who know their kid's handle on Twitter or simply by scrolling through the uncleared text messages on their kids' phone. But just because you can do it, should you?

Kids feel those conversation zones are their private domain, where they feel free to be goofy, jokey, and maybe even a bit snarkier or cooler than they are in their interactions at school. Talk to your kids about responsible use of texting (no sexting!), Twitter, and Facebook. You may want to check occasionally. But unless you feel your kids are at risk or you notice some changes in behavior that are red flags that something's wrong, try to resist obsessively reading the things they're confiding in friends. If you do, it could hurt the trust you've established in your relationship -- which, on balance, may make snooping not worth it.

Maybe you don't need to track their every move
There are phone apps that use GPS technology to track a person's exact location and movements 24 hours a day. A bunch of these apps turned up on the market around Halloween and seemed helpful for parents contemplating having their kids wander around city streets after dark. But do we really need to check on our kids every second of every day, especially when we can usually reach them by cell phone?

How about agreeing on a place your kid is allowed to go and arranging a time for returning home, then congratulating him or her for sticking to the plan? That will build more trust and independence than tracking your kid like an FBI agent.

A picture is not worth a thousand words
When my daughter went to summer camp, we got to log on to an online service that posted daily photos of the campers. It was fun seeing her romping in the surf, hanging out with her cabin mates, biking on a field trip, etc. And the photos made a nice keepsake. But there was something about the arrangement that felt a tiny bit like spying. From 500 miles away, I had a window into what she thought was her private experience away from home.

Seeing those photos online was no match for the letter she sent us from camp telling us about all she'd done and the new friends she'd made, or the stories that bubbled out of her when she came home. Don't let technology's easy access be a substitute for learning about the experience straight from your own kid. 

About Regan McMahon

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Regan has been reviewing children's books for more than a decade. A journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, she cites as one of her toughest assignments having to read and review the 784-page... Read more

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Comments (22)

Parent of a 7 and 10 year old written by Andre G.

Hi Regan, greetings from Brazil. Great article!!! Very Helpful! Many thanks for sharing! I am developing a application for kids which parents will be able to monitor them. I will take your advice and suggestions into the process.
Adult written by John Guetta

Trust, but verify :) The difference between responsible monitoring and spying can safe life. If your kids or teens don't know you'll be monitoring their use and you find something Gotchaaaa. I am not friend with my kids in FB and use That's why I prefer to monitor my kids's facebook account.
Teen, 14 years old written by calvinflame

Ok, I can understand parents wanting to check up with their kids on social media and all that. I don't find that very obtrusive. But if you peek through the key hole in their bedroom door to see if their playing a game instead of reading, that crosses the line. Kids might feel like they aren't trusted, or their a experiment that scientists have to monitor constantly. Parents, its fine if you check up on your kids social media once and a while, or just ask what their doing every so often. I agree that a parents job is to keep their kids safe, but not to take over their lives , especially teens who are very emotionally unstable. Trust me, I'm one of them.
Parent written by treat02

Yes, I agree. If your kid/kids feel that you are snooping too much, go down a little. They might not feel as if you trust them, or are kind of angry. :)
Teen, 13 years old written by AmericanRemote

Listen to yourselves?!?! If we are 13-17 years old all we do is get annoyed with "Rules and restrictions" all it does is make us smarter and find ways around them(: You're not protecting anything from restricting anything. You think you're protecting us when all you're doing is irritating us.
Teen, 14 years old written by Flaming Pencil

I'm sending this to my parents right now. My mother uses my computer to do "her letters." Her lame excuse is that she uses my laptop because it is closer to the printer. I am starting to grow suspicious that she is spying on me.
Adult written by CSM Screen name...

I agree with these as being reasonable. However, If there is an urgent issue that would require me to contact my children while at school, then I would just call the school. You will more than likely get approved to take your child if necessary. I would also expect them to go to the office to ask for permission to call me.
Kid, 12 years old

If your kids are posting bad stuff or hiding it from you, then don't let them on the internet and take their laptop away.
Teen, 13 years old written by gotairsoft

help my dad wont might not let me see the hunger game im 13. he let me see little big solder with language such as the s word the a word and the d word. and the classic movie bullit with gory deaths and some language why wont he let me see the hunger games please help.
Adult written by ydaltac

I agree with Hollysmom - who's in charge and who pays the bill? I never do check my daughter's texts, though, as I feel that she is trustworthy and we have open lines of communication. For the kids out there that are concerned about parents checking their texts, communicate the old fashioned way - talk to a friend in person and in private - what a concept!
Adult written by lc1967

Because my kids have shown they can be trusted I don't obsessively check up on their digital lives, but I do monitor what's going on. My one son's Facebook has to be checked often because some of his friends post some nasty videos I don't want him seeing (if they do it often, the kid gets "unfriended"-no arguing allowed). I also delete the really bad language or inappropriate comments. For his high school brother, I figure he's mature enough to handle these things himself but he knows I'll shut him down if he looks at porn or starts talking inappropriately online.
Parent of a 6 year old written by 1VoiceofReason

My daughter is 6, and I would actually have a gps chip implanted in her if I could. Do you read the news? I would rather apologize later than lose my only child.
Adult written by CSM Screen name...

I agree I would put it in all four of my children if I could. I tell them all the time that I will make sure you're always around or know where your at. Just because other kids get to run wait and see you will still be around not stolen or anything bad.
Teen, 16 years old written by xaltrockgirlx

So right about the grades thing. We have Parent Portal, which sounds similar to PowerSchool which constantly causes problems with the technical difficulties. As a general rule: parents, don't check it every day. Once a week, at most, I say, because those online grade things can make your student look like they have D's when they really have A's because either the teacher doesn't update it everyday and sometimes doesn't even know how to enter grades into the computer (I speak from experience.)
Parent of a 9 and 14 year old written by hollysmom83

I pay for the device and the service. Therefore I have the right to know what is on the device or it can be taken away and use restricted. We are still parents. Keeping kids safe is primary. Knowing about inappropriate behavior is a parent's job.
Teen, 15 years old written by bellanoire

Holly’s Mom, I completely understand where you’re coming from and I respect that, but you should keep boundaries from going into their lives too much. If they have social media accounts such as Instagram, Twitter or Facebook then you should be ‘friends’ with their account, but not have the log in to it. Being ‘friends’ would allow you to see what they’re posting and commenting online, but would still protect their privacy by keeping dms (direct messages) private. Talk to your child when they make their account and let them know what’s safe to dm people and what’s not (ex. no sexting, profanity or cyber bullying and no talking to strangers). I personally feel you should leave their text messages private. Through texting teens share personal information and secrets to their friends that they might not want you knowing. Telling their friend about the boy or girl they think is cute is fine for them, but if their parent was to find out they’d be embarrassed and lose their trust in you. By not reading their messages you allow them to be independent, and as long as you make it clear what’s wrong and what’s right to send, they’re likely to follow your rules. Snapchat, to be honest, can be a controversial topic. (For those who don’t know, Snapchat is a app that allows you to send pictures and messages that automatically delete after being read. The sender receives a notification if the picture or message is screenshotted). Personally I feel Snapchat is okay for teens to use, but I understand parental concerns about it. If your kid wants to get one, but you don’t feel comfortable with it there’s a few things you could do. You could tell them no, but they might ignore what you say and get one behind your back without your knowledge, leading to you having no control over it. You could allow them to get one, but require them to get your permission on who they’re allowed to add as a friend on there. This gives you control over who they’re communicating with (you could not allow the opposite gender, strangers or people you don’t know). Lastly, you could allow your kid to get one with no restrictions from you, but you should let them know what’s okay and it okay to send. If you do decide to track your kids with a app or some other device, make sure you let them know. Tracking them is usually okay, as long as you don’t hide it from them. Personally, I think you should trust your kid and not track them, but everyone has different opinions and different types of kids. Overall, please respect your child’s privacy. Try to avoid reading personal messages, listening to conversations and going through search history. Yes, they’re likely to do some things you don’t approve of, but it’s part of growing up. Public environments, especially middle and high school will likely introduce them to foul language, sexual content (porn, masturbation, sex), drugs or the idea of drugs and alcohol or the idea of alcohol. You can’t protect your child forever, so you need to let them explore, online and offline, without you hovering over their every move.
Teen, 16 years old written by xaltrockgirlx

Holly'smom, may I say as a daughter you are absolutely right, and I don't think the article is trying to say you don't have that right. I think that all that is being suggested is that you don't constantly poke around, because it's more like spying than parenting. True, you can check on it, and I'm not your kid so I don't know how often you do so or what rules are set at your house. I believe all that is being suggested here is to not hack onto your kid's Twitter account to see what they're up to every second of the day, or believe everything that is seen on the Internet. Again, I don't even have anything like a Twitter or FaceBook, so I guess I can't really judge how exactly parents should act when it comes to social networking sites, but I think it would be wise to view it as any other person would on the Internet: occasionally with interest but know there are set ground rules.
Parent of a 14 year old written by [email protected]

I agree with you Regan about not crowding your kids digitally, like leaving posts on FB, over use of PowerSchool, and texting them unnecessarily. But where I totally disagree with you is allowing kids text messages to be private. Safety comes first over privacy with our children. Too many kids have been influenced by peers into doing something inappropriate or going somewhere dangerous and their parents did not know. When you and I were young, we talked about inappropriate things when our parents weren't around. But texting for kids and young teens is the new-age sort of communication that has increased their bravery and freedom in talking about all sorts of inappropriate things. My wife and I monitor our 14-year-old's text conversations with her friends and with her knowledge. It is not to spy on her, it is instead, to know which of her friends have parents who are not concerned with their teenager's safety. Because of our ability to monitor her text conversations, we were able to learn that, in addition to them secretly meeting up with older teenage boys when at one home, her friends were all visiting two very dangerous Web sites; and We were also able to determine which teen's homes these sites were accessed, with little or no supervision. It was not OK to us for her to have sleep overs at these homes until we felt comfortable that our 14-year-old was not a part of this. First of all, after learning this information, we did not run to tell those parents, but instead, we "connected" with those parents for coffee or at school functions to find out more about their boundaries at home. We discovered that one set of parents (were actually grandparents) did not even use a computer and trusted their daughter completely (they were not willing to tighted up limits). Another set became angry with us when we shared what we learned and refused to believe the information. The third set of parents were shocked and established new rules about use the Internet and television (their daughter was also watching Jersey Shore after the parents went to bed). If you're not familiar with these dangerous Web sites, check them out yourself before you allow you child to have unsupervised Internet access. Because the Internet is not a child-safe environment, parents must do what they have to to monitor their child's activity. The risks to our children outweigh the need for them to have privacy. Visit my Web site for more common sense parenting help.
Parent of a 10 and 14 year old written by minimalmonk

Well said! I was slightly appalled at the ignorance of this writer expressing a need for parents to do so little 'parenting' in the digital world. I too agree it's best to keep it low key when leaving comments on a facebook site etc however it's the so called private texting that leads to some major trouble with teens these days. By monitoring texts you find out where your child's head is on any number of subjects and many times find there is a need to be fulfilled over their misunderstanding of some life situations. It's also one of the best tools for decision making about what your child is ready to deal with and where their social maturity level is. When given free reign to speak their minds while texting they will say misguided thoughts you never realized were even in their minds!