illustration by Ryan Etter

Should Parents Monitor Their Kids Online?

Many parents keep tabs on their kids’ online activity by following them on Snapchat or Instagram or by friending them on Facebook. But a recent survey found that some parents are going even further to keep digital track of their kids. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 60 percent of parents of teens have checked their kids’ web history. Nearly half have looked through their kids’ call logs or texts. And a third know the password to at least one of their kids’ social media accounts. Is this kind of digital supervision—or as some call it, spying—a good idea? 

The president of a national parent-teacher group and a former president of a youth rights group weigh in.

Technology and the internet provide kids with rich learning experiences and opportunities to practice skills they need to succeed. At the same time, young people’s use of the internet can expose them to enormous risks and potential pitfalls. And the No. 1 responsibility of parents is to protect their kids. That includes talking to them about good digital habits, helping them develop the skills they need to be responsible and cyber-savvy, setting ground rules for technology use, and sometimes monitoring them.

Young people today have grown up with cutting-edge technology and constant connectivity. To them, it seems normal to share intimate details of their lives online. But we know what they post can have a lasting impact, including on future education and career opportunities. For example, colleges are increasingly reviewing applicants’ social media profiles as part of their admissions process. This is why it’s essential for families to have open, ongoing conversations about potential pitfalls and appropriate online etiquette, as well as for parents to actively participate in their children’s digital life.

By monitoring, parents can help protect their kids’ online reputations.

By monitoring their text messages, calls, social media, and web activity, parents can help their children be responsible, stay safe, and protect their online reputation and future. Monitoring also helps inform conversations on technology use.

Any monitoring needs to be part of an ongoing family dialogue about safety and privacy, active versus passive screen time, apps and downloads, texting, gaming, and social media use. It’s also important to agree on healthy limits so everyone is on the same page and to revisit the conversation regularly as new devices and apps are released and children grow and mature.   

And just as critical as discussing and supervising children’s digital lives, parents should also review their own digital habits and refrain from texting while driving or using their phones at the dinner table and during family time. Kids follow what adults do, and they benefit greatly when expectations and good digital habits are modeled for them.



President, National PTA

It’s understandable that parents worry about their kids. But the most destructive thing

parents can do is violate the bond of trust they share with their children. Teenagers want to feel comfortable approaching their parents with their problems. That can happen only if concerns about web activity are resolved through honest discussion, not spying.

It’s ironic—and unfortunate—that many parents who decide to spy on their kids online do so out of fear that their sons and daughters don’t trust them. They worry that if something does go wrong, their children may not feel comfortable coming to them. And so, to protect their kids, parents eavesdrop.

They end up, however, achieving the opposite: They push their children further away and drive any dangerous activities—if there are any—further into the shadows.

Parents may insist on having a child’s email password, for instance. But that will, in many cases, lead teens to create a secret email account that adults will never see. If parents insist on following their kids on Instagram or Snapchat, kids may come up with a new profile that their parents are unaware of.

Monitoring kids online ultimately makes them less safe.

Even if it were possible to monitor everything kids did online, it would ultimately make them less safe. If teens are used to relying on their parents to identify dangers or to tell right from wrong, they may not learn these essential life skills on their own. Even the most ardent helicopter parents have to stop hovering someday, and if they’ve never prepared their kids to get along without them, they won’t know how.

Young people, who have grown up online, are actually better equipped in most cases than their parents to avoid the pitfalls of technology and recognize potential threats. Monitoring young people online is no more justified than spying on your spouse, or spying by the government. Not only is it an invasion of privacy; it also denies them the respect and dignity to which all people are entitled.



Former President, National Youth Rights Association

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