Parental Monitoring vs. Spying

By Caitlin Wahlers

I was recently speaking to a friend of mine who is the father of two teenagers. Initially, he was recounting a few tales of their most recent antics, but then the conversation turned towards internet safety and parental monitoring. As a former Health Educator for adolescents, I have observed in real-time the evolving relationship between teenagers and technology. I was surprised to learn, however, of the borderline toxic lengths parents have taken to monitor their child’s online activity.

Now, there are several ways parents try to justify their protective behavior. For example, in a new study by the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, greater use of social media by adolescents has led to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. Additionally, as a result of increased screen time, the rates for cyberbullying and stalking are on the rise. While all of these are serious issues, they neither justify nor give permission for parents to control their children and take away their agency.

From my friend’s point of view: “Kids will always outmaneuver their parents, as this generation is the true digital native. Stop trying to control everything and meet them where they’re at.”

I couldn’t agree more with this statement, but while I would like to say that my friend was born with this insight, that would be misleading. This nugget of wisdom was developed as a result of his own blundered attempts to control and monitor his children. (Looking for a way to bypass parental controls? His kids can help you with that.)

For greater clarity, a quick internet search will introduce you to the plethora of tools and apps that are currently on the market. At first glance, these tools don’t appear to be threatening. For example, FamilyTime sets time limits for specific apps and incorporates other mechanisms like scheduling time for homework and bedtime. Other apps, however, walk the fine line between monitoring and spying. For example, Web Watcher allows parents to read deleted text messages, capture screenshots, and monitor online activity based on the application. Does this remind you of an episode of Black Mirror?

This fundamental breach of privacy and agency should not become the new social norm as there are inherent consequences involved. Countless articles have begun to emerge, illustrating the damaging effects of helicopter parenting, a style of parenting that closely monitors their child’s behavior. According to the American Psychological Association, children with helicopter parents have a more difficult time managing their behaviors and emotions in adulthood. This should serve as a red flag to all!

So how we move forward and balance this need for parental authority and child agency? In a recent episode of “Home School” from The Atlantic, the video introduces this idea of intentionality, the ability to be purposeful and deliberate in our actions. This is a wonderful concept because it applies to both parents and teenagers alike, in-person and online. It also offers a bridge that can traverse the generational divide.

Circling back to my friend, once he learned that his children had been circumventing his controls, it forced him to have a conversation with them. The blunder forced him to interrogate himself, understand the intentions behind his actions, and ultimately meet his kids where they were at. Responsible technology usage is not bestowed from above and so it must be taught, but with it also comes the need to trust. The internet and social media are filled with threats and opportunities, but that does not fundamentally change the need for human connection.


Twitter: @CMWalle
Instagram: @cmwalle

This Article Has 1 Comment
  1. Student says:

    It is very interesting to see how parental monitoring has changed over the years. When I was in middle school and high school my parents did not have access to my text messages or passwords to my social media accounts or cell phone. They followed my social media platforms just to make sure I was being safe and smart. My younger brother is in high school now and it is interesting to see how many parents of kids in his grade have access to everything on their phones. I know so many parents know who snoop through their kids’ phone and cross the line between parenting and spying.

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