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?
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phone media illustration
Credit: Illustrations by Sam Kalda

Snooping on your kidsused 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.

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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.

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phone gift rules illustration
Credit: Illustrations by Sam Kalda

1 Set the rules the moment you hand over a phone.

The average American kid gets their first smartphone around age 10, developmentally a tender age. “Children that young don’t understand that anything on their phones could be transmitted to the world,” says Sierra Filucci, executive editor of Common Sense Media. “It’s hard for them to see the larger picture. They only see what’s right in front of them.”

Some parents of young users set up a plan that lets them see every text or email their kids receive. Others simply share technology, allowing kids to text only from Mom or Dad’s phone. There is a benefit to introducing your kids to smartphones at grade-school age: Kids this young still feel very attached to their parents and will likely welcome their guidance. “I use Instagram, and sometimes I text friends through social media,” says Sammy, an 11-year old girl in New York. “If I’m not sure about a post, I’ll show it to my parents first to get their OK. They’ve never said no, but if they did, I’d ask why so I would know better for next time. I know it’s for the best because they love me and want to keep me safe.”

Lay out the rules early (you can also download parent-child phone contracts at Think: Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandma to see; it’s never OK to accept a friend request from someone you don’t know in real life; treat others with respect, and if they don’t treat you with respect, end the chat or talk to your parents. “Even with teens, there’s still a superego that senses what’s right and wrong, and you want to be that parental voice in their head keeping them from doing what they know is wrong,” says Robin Goldstein, PhD, author of The Parenting Bible. Samantha, 18, who will be a college freshman in Atlanta this fall, says her parents’ guidelines still ring in her head, something she appreciated when she was applying to schools last year. “They’ve said many times, ‘What goes on the internet stays there forever,’ and I think about that every time I post something,” she says.

The more you show trust and respect, the more your kids may circle back to you for advice.

2 Acknowledge and accept that you are no longer their main confidant.

By age 14, your child may start closing doors, keeping secrets, and going to friends for advice. Repeat this: It’s not about you.

“As kids become teens, they need to get some distance from their parents in order to develop a personal identity,” says Lucie Hemmen, PhD, author of Parenting a Teen Girl. “Part of healthy development is turning to peers as a source of contact and connection.” That means that when teens want to know whether an outfit looks cool or they’re upset about a social snub, they’re going to talk to a friend. “A lot of kids think, ‘I’m not going to bring this up with my parents, because I’m going to be judged or hear a lecture,’ ” says Goldstein. “They can be more open with their friends.”

While this distance is a normal part of growing up, it can still suck for parents, who naturally mourn the closeness they once had with their children, not to mention the control they felt over them, says Hemmen. But she notes that the more you show trust and respect, the more your kids may circle back to you for advice: “If you can support healthy separation, you will have more entrée into their lives.”

3 If you’re going to spy, let them know.

Once you’ve laid out the rules and spent a few weeks regularly sitting down with your child to discuss the apps she’s using and what she’s posting, it’s time to make a mini-assessment. If your child has shown that she’s using social media appropriately—not getting swept up in friend drama or staying up all night texting, and never posting anything that will hurt others or come back to haunt her later—you can start to step back, says Heitner. The bases have been covered, and your child hasn’t given you reason to doubt that she’s following your rules.

However, if your kid is getting caught up in social media storms (e.g., friend fights tend to grow exponentially more dramatic over a series of posts or texts), let her know you will be keeping an eye on things for her own safety “Don’t be sneaky—say it straightforwardly and unapologetically,” says Hemmen. “You also have to be willing to limit her use or shut it down if needed.”

This open monitoring—along with a clear message that technology is a privilege, not a right—is working for Teresa Sellinger, a mom of three in Sparta, New Jersey. “I allow my kids privacy, with the understanding that if they break the rules, they will lose that privacy and/or that mode of communication,” she says.

illustration diary private
Credit: Illustrations by Sam Kalda

4 Treat journals and diaries with respect.

Even in this digital world, there are kids who prefer to write down their thoughts on paper in a diary. If you find one under your kid’s pile of stuffed animals while changing the sheets, resist the urge to flip it open. Remember, these are conversations your child is having with himself, not thoughts that can be disseminated into cyberspace.

“Self-expression is so important to tweens and teens, and one of the best things they can do for their emotional development is write down their thoughts and feelings to work them out, sometimes using language that can be overdramatic or alarming to parents,” says Hemmen. She adds that reading these secret thoughts puts parents in an unwinnable position: “Things get weird because the parent either keeps what they learn a secret, but then is filled with confusion and anxiety about what’s really going on, or confronts the kid and becomes the ‘bad guy’ who can’t be trusted.”

5 Keep an eye out for red flags IRL.

Of course, all these rules come with a major caveat: If you have reason to believe your child is in danger, hurting others, or engaging in harmful behavior, you absolutely have the right to do some recon, says Goldstein. If you see changes in your child’s mood and behavior— she’s sleeping excessively, failing academically, not eating, isolating herself from friends, or disappearing for hours with no explanation, say—check what she’s up to on her devices. “Offer a choice: ‘I’m going to look at your phone, or we can sit down and look at it together,’ ” advises Goldstein. “Say, ‘I’m doing this because I’m concerned and I love you.’ ” If you find something that raises an alarm, adds Goldstein, talk to a school counselor or mental health professional to help find solutions.

But if you let your kids know they can always come to you about any problems—no shame, no judgment—you’re more likely to keep lines of communication open. “Your behavior as a supportive listener teaches your kids that you are an excellent go-to when they have a problem to discuss,” says Hemmen. “This way you have better odds of being kept in the loop instead of locked out of your teen’s private life, trying to get in.”

6 What about their friends' privacy?

When you peek at your kid’s conversations, you’re also invading the privacy of the friend on the other side. “A friend who is gay just came out to me, and he never would have if he thought my parents were listening,” says Michael, 15, from Long Island, New York. Michael also points out that kids talk in a more candid way when they’re alone than when adults are around, using language parents might find alarming. “If a parent is snooping, they can cherry-pick one text where a kid says an inappropriate thing, and they’ll think he’s a bad kid,” says Michael, even if he’s actually a positive presence in your child’s life.

Also, you have to ask yourself: If you find out something truly bad about your child’s friend, what are you going to do? Will you be the parent who reports what you find to the other family? There’s no right or wrong answer, but it is something you have to consider before you snoop, says Heitner.

A good rule of thumb: Anything that’s being broadcast to a large group (posts on Instagram, group chats among the soccer team) is fair game, but step back from anything that, in a pre-tech world, would be said in a private talk between two kids hanging out in the basement.