Should You Spy On Your Kids Online?

Any parent of young children can attest that the Internet is both wondrous and scary.

Google makes you the master of knowledge, able to answer any crazy question your kid throws at you.

But letting children have open and unmonitored access puts them at risk – from online predators to cyberbullying, to the sites you just can’t un-see.

How do you keep them safe while staying sane and allowing them to develop appropriate online skills and boundaries?

This week, we explore the modern parenting quandary: should you spy on your kids?

How Worried Are Parents?

A survey from found that 67% of parents (from a survey of 627 parents nationwide) are worried about their child’s safety online.

percent of parents worried about child safety online

The most common concerns? Parents are somewhat to very concerned about:

pew survey of parents concern over children online

How do today’s parents address these concerns?

The Pew Research Center explored this conundrum in their “Parents, Teens, and Digital Marketing” report.

Here’s what they found:

graph showing percent parents monitoring teen children

How Should You Balance Safety And Privacy?

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably seen us recommend using device restrictions and parental monitoring software to limit what your child has access to on their device.

For this to be effective, this has to be done in conjunction with regular and open conversation with your child. More on this in a minute.

Some experts caution against utilizing parental monitoring programs to “spy” on your child.

Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media warns that “kids believe that their phones are sacred and private.”

She recommends that instead of monitoring, parents discuss boundaries and appropriate online behavior.

She advocates doling out freedom and device features only after your child demonstrates they can follow rules and understand consequences.

Glance through the comments sections on any article about monitoring child activity and you’ll see parents divided on the subject.

Here’s a glimpse of some of the comments posted on a CBS News article where parents and experts weigh in on the debate about if parents should snoop on their kids online activities:

comments debating parents snooping on their children online

Some believe that children should be allowed to develop their independence and that monitoring their communications is a breach of trust and privacy.

Others argue that use of a computer or a phone is a privilege and that it is a parent’s right – and duty – to oversee what their child is doing online to keep them safe.

Obviously, only you can decide what’s best for your child.

What We Recommend:

1. Talk to your kids early and often

Discuss what is appropriate to share via text, email, and social media.

Talk about how they should treat others and the permanence of anything they say or share.

Have them consider the social consequences of a “friend” forwarding a text or email where they said something unkind or embarrassing, or worse, a private image or video.

For older teens, longer term consequences should be introduced, including the possibility that unsavory things found online could affect their college or future employment opportunities.

top five social media content types preventing employment

Also, make sure they know that they should come to you or a trusted adult if they are threatened, intimidated, or bullied online.

  2. Limit access for very young kids

Personally, I do not believe that a child should be given a smartphone until they need one for looking up directions (GPS).

There are ways to have your child contact you from school, practice, or a friend’s house without giving them always-on access to the Internet.

Check our post “Stepping into Smartphones” for suggestions to stay connected with young children and teens without giving them always-there access to the internet.

  3. Make the monitoring decision that is right for you and your family

No one can tell you if monitoring will damage your relationship with your kid.

There are many levels of automated monitoring.

You can opt for minimal alerts that let you know when your child engages in dangerous behavior or opt for software that gives you access to every email, text, and social media post.

Some even give you login credentials.

Personally, I feel that software that lets a parent see their child’s location and be alerted in the following scenarios is appropriate:

This allows you to take necessary action to keep them safe, and or alerts you that you should open a dialog about things they’re looking for online.

However, this may not be right for every family.

If you do integrate monitoring into your safety plan, make sure you tell your child what you are going to monitor and why.

This is important to establish and maintain a relationship with your child and technology built on trust and respect.

It also lets your child know you are giving them a powerful tool that requires responsible use.

If there will be consequences for “bad” behavior (like restrictions or loss of device), make sure they understand the potential repercussions before you hand them the device.

Today’s teens are going to have an online presence whether you like it or not.

Prepare them for the challenges and encounters they’ll face.