They used to tell you everything. Now they slam their laptop shut when you walk into the room. What's a concerned parent to do?

By Marisa Cohen
August 14, 2018
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.

Snooping on your kids used to be so much easier. When I was a teen, the phone was in the kitchen. Notes from camp friends came through the mail. In those days, if parents wanted to know what their kid was up to, they didn’t have to try hard at all.

For the most part, my parents respected my privacy—except, occasionally, when they didn’t. One day I was confronted by my mom, who was holding my diary open to a page on which I mentioned that a friend had smoked a cigarette in the bathroom at a bat mitzvah and offered me a puff. (For the record, I coughed so much I never tried one again.) I was outraged that she had snooped and vowed that when I had kids, I would never violate their privacy, as long as they didn’t give me any legitimate reason to worry. And I’ve kept my word. Not that I haven’t been tempted—I would love to know who my daughters have crushes on and whether cigarettes are still being smoked in bathrooms at bat mitzvahs. But I find out the old-school way: by asking. Of course, I realize I’m not getting an unedited rundown of every single thing that goes on in their lives, but I do get a pretty decent flow of information.

RELATED: Please Don't Post My Kid's Picture on Social Media

While the hands-off method works for my family, parents have to decide what makes sense for them. Many of my friends go the opposite way, frequently and unapologetically eyeballing their kids’ personal communications. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 48 percent of parents of children ages 13 to 17 have read their kids’ text messages, while 61 percent have monitored which websites the kids are visiting. In a study sponsored by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 68 percent of parents of kids ages 10 to 13 said they monitored their children’s phone activities.

“It’s our job to make sure kids make good choices, and sometimes we will dig into their business to be sure everything is OK,” says Maribeth, a mom of five kids ages 11 to 20 in New Hampshire. This means checking social media, reading texts, and even going through backpacks, she says. “We’ve never had any pushback, and they come to us to talk about everything.” Other parents tell me that while they don’t peep into private conversations, they do follow their kids on all social media.

It’s a tricky balance: How do we give our kids space to grow while also protecting them, not only from the dangers we grew up with but also from a digital world in which a 40-year-old man can talk to your tween by dubbing himself DaisyUnicorn14 and a single thoughtless text can be instantly sent to the entire school? And on the spectrum of parental surveillance, where do we cross over from conscientiously monitoring to deceptively spying?

Then there’s the fact that your 9-year-old is probably more digitally proficient than you. Some kids block parents from seeing certain content. They may have a rinsta (a “real” Instagram account, which they let their parents follow, where they post photos of puppies and cupcakes) and a finsta (a “fake” account, where they share racier or darker images with a select group of followers, most definitely not Mom and Dad). And according to a survey by Common Sense Media, while 52 percent of parents of teens ages 14 to 17 say they are “extremely” or “very” aware of what their kids are doing online, just 30 percent of teens agree with that assessment.

“The more you spy on your children, the more you drive them to be deceitful,” says Devorah Heitner, PhD, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, who notes that kids crave privacy and will go further underground to get it. A study from the Netherlands found that the more parents snooped, the greater effort their kids put into hiding information; the result was that the parents who pried wound up with less information than the parents who didn’t.

So how do we provide a safety net while also giving kids a fair measure of trust and privacy? A few suggestions ahead.

You May Like