Online Safety: Why Parents Should Never Snoop On Their Kid's Phone

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How to keep kids safe online without invading their privacy. | Blend Images/Jetta Productions via Getty Images
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When I first started as a family counsellor, back in the “analogue days,” parents would sheepishly confess that they'd found their child’s diary and read a few entries. Today’s digital equivalent is parents reading text messages on their kids’ phone, or creeping them on social media.

The platform has changed, but the parenting dilemma has not. Should we snoop?

When parents DO find upsetting content, they feel justified for their actions. After all, if they discover bullying or that their tween is having sex, they can take action. Thank goodness they were snooping, right?

Not necessarily. And I’ll tell you why.

Just because you discovered posts or texts you needed to take action on, doesn’t mean you were morally or ethically correct in your decision to invade your teen’s privacy. Wire tapping and hidden cameras would feel equally invasive and devious to your child.

Supervision is for safety purposes only and not for parental curiosity.

Let me explain my position and offer alternative ways to both respect privacy and protect your children’s safety.

Raising a child is a slow developmental process. We have to teach our children new skills and allow them to experiment and learn by trial and error until they become competent, no longer requiring our education or supervision. They come to believe in themselves as we learn to trust their abilities. That is as true for learning to ride a bike as it is for learning to be a good digital citizen.

When your children first get their phone or Instagram account, you let them know you need to ride beside them and teach them all the ins and outs and proper conduct, just like you teach kids to ride on the right side of the path and ring their bell when overtaking another rider. And of course, always wear a helmet.

Let them know you will remove their bike privileges if they are not being safe or if they don’t respectfully care for their bike. The same goes for all devices and platforms. It’s a developmental process and you should be weaning yourself off the role and allowing greater autonomy as they prove their skills and you grow your trust in their abilities to manage responsibly on their own.

So when they first get that phone explain "we need to learn together all the ins and outs, features, safety aspects and proper conduct." This includes how many Instagram posts or tweets in a day and how to comment in ways that aren’t annoying.

You need to ride alongside for awhile to ensure they have the hang of it.

Because they are new users, like new riders, you need to ride alongside for awhile to ensure they have the hang of it. That means knowing all their passwords and informing them that you will be checking periodically to ensure they are applying all the parenting guidelines you have taught them when they are online.

It means letting them know that, like a helmet, the conditions for safety must be met. I recommend the use of safety apps that monitors for words and phrases such as “suicide." Other apps allow parents to block Wi-Fi and monitor the usage across apps on an iPad, so you know if they are really online doing homework or playing Minecraft.

Because you have made your parental supervision (including apps) part of the conditions of use and because you have discussed this condition beforehand, it's not snooping, it's not wire tapping, it's not hidden cameras.

This form of overt supervision is both ethical and moral. You can describe this to your children as being like the RIDE program doing spot checks for drinking and driving. We are doing our good parenting job to keep the digital world safe for all. They will not take this approach personally.

Helicopter parents who simply want to find out what their kids are up to and stalk their accounts are over-stepping.

They will view this as you doing your job as a parent, which really is an act of love and caring (even if they moan a bit about it.)

As your child becomes more experienced online, and as they prove they can manage their digital life safely and politely, the supervision needs to be reduced. Check less frequently. Be sure to let them know how great they're doing at using their devices appropriately.

Our children are mostly doing a good job with this stuff. Think of how many text and posts they do a day? Very few are off colour. Proportionally speaking, they should be given accolades for their content. By paying attention to the positive, you will get more good stuff from your children.

“You are doing a great job of being a respectful and responsible digital citizen. Keep it up!” That is music to a kid’s ear.

Supervision is for safety purposes only and not for parental curiosity. Helicopter parents who simply want to find out what their kids are up to and stalk their accounts are over-stepping.

Your child will feel you're invading their privacy and acting in ways that are disrespectful. That breach of trust will erode the closeness in the relationship.

Children who don’t feel trusted begin making worse choices for themselves.

Children who don’t feel trusted begin making worse choices for themselves. They become more sneaky and less trustworthy themselves. Disrespect breeds disrespect. Don’t go there.

Also, you can’t simply rely on apps and blockers for safety. You still have to monitor your child in a more holistic way.

If they're in trouble, other signs will appear and you can address what you are seeing. “You are spending a lot of time in your room -- is everything okay?”

“You seem really down about going to school these days -- is there anything you want to talk about?”

“I notice whenever you text with your boyfriend you seem agitated afterwards -- is everything going okay with him?”

Parents have an important role in keeping their children safe. These methods will allow you to keep your kids safe, while keeping the relationship between you healthy, too.

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