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
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This Article Has 6 Comments
  1. Alyssa Newsom says:

    As the child of a helicopter parent myself, I understand the negative effects that overbearing parenting can create. Whether it was my mom taking my phone away to read through my text messages or her searching through my Webkinz account to see what I was doing on there, (like seriously….. Webkinz? What could I have possibly done on there that was bad?) every “protection” she put in place to “keep me safe” I found a way to maneuver. As the saying goes, strict parents create sneaky children.
    I think having an open conversation with children about online safety needs to be a more common phenomenon. Just as your friend did, parents should talk to their kids instead of interrogate them. Additionally, I think it’s important to understand that a parent’s priority should be educating their kids about the things they can. From there, it’s on the responsibility of their child to make the right decisions online (and in real life) and if they don’t then they have the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson.

  2. 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.

  3. Ofuma Eze-Echesi says:

    With so much happening in our world today especially the toxicity of social media and the negative effects it has on people in general, especially young adults, it is understandable why parents feel the need to monitor or spy on their children. Rape, for example, has become prevalent and continues to be one of the top news headlines. Parents with the fear of their children being either the victims or predators may find it necessary to monitor/spy to protect them and prevent the situation. However, a downside is that children who don’t get the point or just feel trapped due to the actions of their parents may try to find a way out by eith4er completely disengaging from their parents, social media or both, which could be even more dangerous and may defeat the whole purpose of monitoring/spying.

    So, I definitely agree with the friend’s point of view, of parents to stop trying to control everything and try to meet kids where they’re at, which could be by educating them/expressing concerns because it will create awareness for the kids and mutual understanding.

  4. Bridget Kraus says:

    This is a very interesting topic, and it just goes to show how social media has really been taking over people’s lives. There is definitely a line between actual good parenting and spying. While social media is a relatively good and easy way to see what your kids or anyone is doing, there comes a time when it starts to be too much. Nowadays parents can pretty much see everything their child is doing; they can track them to see exactly where they are at all times, follow social media accounts, and can even have access to their kids’ text messages. It is mind-blowing to see how far technology has come to where it essentially can serve as a way for parents to monitor their kids, but when is it too much?

  5. Jacob Swinn says:

    While I understand the need for parents to protect their children from online predators, it shouldn’t come at the expense of the trust in the parent-child relationship. Parents should have open conversations with their kids focused on the dangers of being online and what to watch out for/what is appropriate, but what they shouldn’t do is spy on their kids’ accounts and activity. In most cases, this creates a sense of distrust between the kids and their parents and can lead to a fracture in the relationship. Are kids going to make mistakes online (or in life)? Of course, but those mistakes should be used as teachable moments.

  6. Sara Espinosa says:

    This is such a relevant topic. As a millennial, I had to learn how to use social media as well as teach my parents how to do it. Generation Z was just born into it, therefore probably more adept at it than my generation. I like how you bring up the concept of trust in your article. Is there enough trust between parents and children? And if there isn’t, is that justified? I feel like there is definitely a halfway point between both arguments and it takes a conversation (like you pointed out in the article) to define boundaries between parents and teens. Spying on social media or helicoptering kids is the new “reading someone’s private diary.” Unlike a diary, however, there are many more dangers to teens online, but if this explained to them, there can definitely be a compromise.

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