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May 8, 2023

Protecting Your Teen on the Internet: Should You Spy on Your Kids?

Over the past 40 years, the internet has slowly but surely become an intrinsic part of everyday life. It is a bottomless source of information, facilitates learning and collaboration, helps foster connections, creates communities, and provides entertainment, creativity, and inspiration.

However, despite all these benefits, we as parents are keenly aware of the internet’s dangers and risks for our teens. It contains a multitude of inappropriate, overwhelming, negative, and explicit content and is a privacy risk. The internet builds bridges between users, some of which you may prefer to remain unbuilt until your teen is old or mature enough to handle any potential consequences. Furthermore, social media use has been strongly correlated with increased feelings of isolation, depression, suicidal behaviors, and low self-esteem in young users.

According to the American Psychological Association, three primary goals of parenting include ensuring a young person’s safety and health, preparing the young person to handle life as a productive adult, and passing down cultural values. As parents, it’s our responsibility to guide our teens’ internet use in a way that protects them from its dangers, supports our family values, and helps our teens develop healthy habits and practices that they carry into adulthood.

So, how do we help our teens learn to safely enjoy the internet? For many parents, the answer to this question seems to be monitoring their child’s internet use. But what’s the difference between monitoring and spying?  Is monitoring our teens’ internet use “spying” or is it simply part of parental supervision?

Teenagers and Their Privacy

Young people develop the need and desire for privacy as they mature, gradually separate themselves from their parents, individuate, and prepare for adulthood. This process involves the creation of boundaries between parents and kids. Privacy and boundaries are imperative to teens’ development and ability to become healthy, independent adults. As parents, granting our teens privacy not only supports their development, but also helps foster trusting relationships.

Despite this, the debate does exist among parenting experts about whether teens’ privacy is a right or a privilege. Although privacy is important, it can become an issue when our teens’ behaviors compromise safety (theirs or their family’s). In these instances, it might be necessary to speak with our teens about their privacy as a privilege, while explaining our concerns and the actions (such as monitoring their internet use) that we plan to take to keep them safe and teach them better standards for protecting themselves.

Is Spying a Bad Thing?

There is a difference between spying and supervising. Supervision includes openly monitoring and guiding our teens’ behaviors, choices, and environment. The teen is aware of the supervision. The verb “to spy” often has a more negative connotation that implies snooping or even disrespect, so when we use the word “spy” in this resource know that we mean monitoring our teens’ activities without their knowledge from a place of care, and because their knowledge of that monitoring would impede the goals of this part of parenting. Although some situations make spying necessary (which we’ll discuss later), it can also have the potential to damage our relationships with our teens,—especially when they’ve  done nothing to betray our trust or exhibit poor decision-making behaviors.

Before deciding if you should spy on your teens, carefully think through the decision. Consider the reasons why you feel the need to spy. Has your teen exhibited dangerous behavior? Have you already talked to your teen about your concerns? Are you only feeling tempted to spy in order to relieve your own fears? Is the potential danger of the current situation more significant than the potential damage spying could have on your relationship with your child? Also think through what associations you have with the word “spying.” What does it bring to mind? Did your parents ever spy on you, and how did that affect you and your relationship with them?

All situations and parent-child relationships are unique. So, there is no one-size-fits-all guideline for when you absolutely should not monitor your teens’ actions without their knowledge or permission. However, you might want to refrain from spying or pursue other avenues of supervision and parenting if:

 

  • You have not talked with your teen about your concerns.
  • Your teen has not given you any reason to believe they are making poor choices online.
  • You only wish to alleviate your own fears or confirm your belief that your teen is making good choices.

 

Remember that, while it is your responsibility to protect your teen, the health of your relationship is also of paramount importance.

Can Spying Ever Be the Right Thing to Do?

Although maintaining a relationship of trust is essential for fostering a healthy bond with your teen, relying solely on their ability to self-report to ensure their safety when using the internet may not always be enough. In such instances, it is possible to trust your teen while also verifying their online activities. If concerns about your teen’s and family’s safety are serious and attempts to talk openly and honestly with your teen about your concerns have not been fruitful, then spying on your teen’s internet use might be justified.

Monitoring Phones, Computers, and Social Media

According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center, approximately 60% of parents manually monitor their kids’ internet use. However, the same study revealed that a much smaller percentage of parents utilize tools such as monitoring apps, internet filters, and parental phone controls to filter, monitor or track their teens’ internet activity. These tools can be highly effective in ensuring a safer online environment for teens, as well as keeping a close eye on their online behavior.

Should I Tell My Child If I Decide to Spy on Them?

Parents who decide to spy or more closely monitor their teens’ internet activity encounter another decision: whether or not to tell their teens they are watching. Telling teens they are being monitored will likely result in them becoming more secretive. Not telling teens, however, risks the chance that they will discover the spying (perceived as a privacy violation) which could potentially harm the parent-child relationship.

Ultimately, we have to consider what our true intent in monitoring internet activity is. Are we going after a “gotcha” moment, wanting to catch them misbehaving? Or do we simply wish to encourage them to make safer choices?

As parents we just want our kids to be safe. As a result, it is often best to be honest with teens about monitoring their internet use (social media accounts, text messages, browsing history, phone activity, etc.). You do not have to be specific in how or what you plan to monitor, but simply knowing that you are paying attention can help influence your teen to make better choices.

Setting Guidelines for Your Teen’s Online Behavior

Help your child use the internet responsibly by providing them with internet use guidelines and rules such as:

  • Don’t share personal information (full name, phone number, address, school name, birthdate, or social security number).
  • Don’t use public Wi-Fi.
  • Don’t share your laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
  • Don’t talk to strangers (or accept their friend requests).
  • Don’t open emails from strangers.
  • Don’t download anything or click links without permission from an adult.
  • Don’t share your pictures.
  • Balance online activities with real-world interactions.
  • Turn off notifications to prevent disruptions.
  • Limit screen time and track time spent online.
  • Do not keep phones in the bedroom or use them before going to sleep.

We can also provide a model of good online behavior by balancing internet and social media use in our own time.

How to Talk to Your Teenager About Internet Safety

Communication is key. Be proactive about internet safety discussions. Don’t wait to have a conversation after a problem has occurred. Talking about internet safety will be easier if you have already established a habit of talking positively about the internet, social media, video games, and other online interests with your teenager. Consistently demonstrate an interest in your child’s online life by asking about the things they enjoy doing online so that they will feel more comfortable coming to you if they are ever upset or worried about something they have encountered online.

If your teen has a problem online, stay calm while listening and asking questions. Remember that although you might be feeling angry or disappointed, your top priority is your teen’s safety and well-being. Becoming emotionally elevated or angry could discourage your teen from coming to you in the future. Remain calm and offer your support and guidance.

Learning to Trust Our Abilities as Parents

Proverbs 22:6 instructs us to: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” As parents, it is our responsibility to orient our teens in the right moral direction. We can do this by having open, loving, and supportive conversations, offering praise and encouragement, providing gentle correction, and setting a positive example.

As parents, we should strive to love our teens as God loves us, basing our relationships on faith, trust, respect, hope, honesty, and forgiveness. We must also learn to trust ourselves as parents. When in doubt, always return to the most basic and profound example of love and parenting put forth in the Bible: the relationship between God the Father and all His children.

For more advice on having loving, constructive conversations with your teens about living well in the modern world, we encourage you to explore the parenting resources on our website or to help support Axis’s mission of building lifelong faith by helping parents and caring adults talk with their kids about what they otherwise wouldn’t, one conversation at a time.

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