Spying or Oversight? How to Know When You Have Gone Too Far

Keep your teen safe online without becoming James Bond in the process

two parents peeking out a window

For today’s kids, their digital life starts as early as toddlerhood and accelerates from there. From iPads, Leapster and Nintendo DS to online gaming and funny YouTube videos, kids today are immersed in technology from birth. By the time they are adolescents, much of their activity takes place electronically via social media posts, e-mails, texts and instant messaging.

As a result, it is not surprising that parents worry about a host of online risks and how to keep their kids safe.

Whether it is concerns about adults posing as teens, sexting among peers, identity theft or cyberbullying and sexual bullying, parents have a lot to worry about. What’s more, all of these potential issues can happen outside the view of parents. Consequently, parents are faced with the dilemma of determining what is healthy oversight and what constitutes spying.

Not surprisingly though, many parents become queasy at the mere mention of spying on their kids. But opting of a hands-off approach is not healthy either. So where does a good parent find a balance?

Oversight vs. Spying

The smartest way to monitor your child's behavior online is to stay connected digitally. Make sure that you are following your child on Twitter, Instagram and any other social media service they use. You also should have passwords to all your child’s accounts and devices and let him know you will be checking the devices and accounts every now and then.

It is not spying if your child knows in advance that you will conduct random checks. Instead, you have established that you will openly monitor their activity rather than secretly spy on them, hoping to catch them doing something they should not be. What’s more, children are more likely to monitor their own behavior if they knows you are watching and checking in periodically.

In the meantime, have regular conversations about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable online. And if you see an inappropriate post by your child or his friend, discuss it. Try to keep your tone neutral and conversational so that your child doesn’t tune you out. By talking with your child about online safety on a regular basis, it becomes more of a teamwork atmosphere and less like covert operation.

How to Establish Oversight Guidelines

Overall, there should be a direct link between the amount of responsibility and honesty that kids show and the amount of privacy they are allowed to have. If your child takes responsibility for his actions and is honest about mistakes, they should be allowed a little more freedom and privacy. Remember, the adolescent years are a time when teens need to separate from their parents and become individuals. What that means is that they want to have a unique identity and a life of their own, and adolescence is really about preparing them for that.

What’s more, when you engage in spying on your kids rather providing healthy oversight of their activities, you are not fostering independence or helping raise a young adult who can make independent decisions.

Instead, spying on your otherwise responsible child sends the message: “I don’t trust you, even when you haven’t done anything wrong.” On the other hand, oversight says: "I trust you. But I am still your parent and it is my job to guide you."

So how do parents allow for the privacy teens crave and still keep their kids safe? Aside from the things mentioned above, here are some additional guidelines for maintaining a healthy oversight on your kids’ online activities without becoming obsessive or suffocating in the process.

Trust your child, but verify actions.

While it is important to allow your child some space and some privacy, you are still the parent and need to verify that your teen is truly adhering to your rules and guidelines. For this reason, you should communicate in advance how you plan to monitor behavior. For instance, if you plan to use GPS tracking, employ computer-monitoring systems, check browser history or follow on social media, tell your child up front. Also, make sure you have all passwords and are conducting random checks.

Remember, the difference between responsible oversight and spying is the upfront communication involved. If your teen does not know you will be monitoring his online use and then you confront him about something you find, he is likely to feel resentful and may start hiding things from you. As a result, once you decide what type of monitoring you will be doing, make sure you communicate that with your teen. This way, there are no surprises when you bring up something you see online.

Ask questions

If you are like most parents, you want to trust your kids. But you also know that they are kids. Relying on their word all the time may not be enough to keep them safe. As a result, ask questions like, “Who are you texting?” Or, “What websites did you visit today?” Try to keep your conversations positive and not accusatory. If you are confrontational, your kids will be less likely to come to you when they see things online that are upsetting or confusing. When you see red flags or warning signs, have a conversation. The key to healthy oversight is constant communication about social media use.

Find ways to give your child some privacy.

If you have a teenager who meets his responsibilities, respects his curfew, is where he says he will be, has healthy friendships, and you have no reason to suspect anything, by all means give them some privacy.

One way to do that is by respecting the boundaries of their personal room. You can even communicate that to them. Say something like: “I have no reason not to trust you. So I am going to respect your privacy.” That way, your child knows that he or she is being rewarded for good behavior—your lack of interference in personal space is a direct result of his positive actions.

Meanwhile, remind your child that social media is a public space and there is no privacy there. As a result, you will be monitoring and reviewing his online activities so that he can develop a positive online reputation. Then make sure you guide him in making good choices online.

Allow your child to naturally separate from you.

When a child is little, there is no separation between the child and the parent. But as kids develop and get older, they start to separate. Part of the separation at this age includes setting boundaries of where your child ends and where you begin. While parents and teens may fight over just how much space a teen needs, understand that your child’s need to separate from you is a very important aspect of child development and leads to developing autonomy.

By allowing your child some freedom to make decisions online without your constant approval, you are helping build a future adult that can function on his own. This does not mean you take a hands-off approach, but the more you can empower your child to make their own decisions about friends and social media use, the better for your child in the long run. Your job is to provide oversight and correction where needed while giving your child some latitude in this area to become his own unique person.

Is Spying Ever Acceptable?

It should come as no surprise that teens often lack reasoning skills. Most teens only think about the here and the now and do not consider any future consequences. For this reason, they can get into trouble online. When this happens, it is important to step up your surveillance activities, especially if you fear your child may be involved in something dangerous. Here are some guidelines as to when it might be appropriate to spy on your teen.

Bullying issues.

It is well documented that kids often do not tell adults when they are being bullied. As a result, if you suspect that your child is being bullied and your child will not open up to you about it, by all means do a little snooping. But only after you have asked your child if anything is going on. If your child insists everything is fine but you still have reason to believe that there is bullying, do a little digging. Any kind of bullying left unaddressed can have devastating consequences, including increasing a teen’s risk for depression and suicidal thoughts.

Dating abuse.

Like bullying, teens that are being abused by a dating partner are not likely to tell others what is going on. In fact, they may not even realize that the relationship is abusive. If you see red flags for dating abuse in your teen’s life, begin by talking to your teen. If you find that you are not getting anywhere, then it is important to spy a little.

One thing to look for is an excessive amount of texts or constant checking in. Other signs of dating abuse include jealousy, control, manipulation and verbal insults. Remember, dating abuse should never be ignored. It also never gets better. Instead, it escalates over time. Be sure you are taking steps to help your teen deal with an abusive boyfriend or girlfriend while keeping close tabs on what is going on.

Threats of suicide.

If your teen has mentioned suicide or talks about death, do not ignore these comments or assume that he or she is being dramatic or wants attention. When kids mention suicide, it is because they have already thought about it. Get your child evaluated by a doctor and in to see a counselor right away.

Additionally, it may be a good idea to keep a close watch on your teen. Leaving a suicidal teen alone in his room for extended periods of time may not be the best course of action for safety. Talk with your child’s doctor or counselor about how much oversight your child needs and how much privacy is needed at this sensitive time.

How to Start the Conversation

If you do catch your child participating in unsafe behavior, online or otherwise, take a moment to get all of the facts before you have a discussion. Jumping to conclusions or starting an argument could result in trust issues.

Remember, if you have done a good job teaching Internet safety and making sure your child’s computer and online activities are an open book, you should be able to monitor activities without having to become a double agent.

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