Is It Snooping?

When a child is old enough to access technology, gets a cell phone of her own and starts signing up for social media accounts, many parents wonder how to monitor. Read her text messages? Know her Facebook password? Here's our advice.

By Dena Kohleriter, LCSW Licensed Clinician | Mar 23, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

When a child is old enough to access technology, when she gets a cell phone of her own and she starts signing up for social media accounts, many parents wonder how to monitor that. Should we read her text messages? Should we know her Facebook password?

In many ways, parenting is about preparing our children to go out in the world and face their own battles. Once they go to middle school, we don’t walk 50 feet behind them in the hall every day for the first month as they get used to it. But technology is different. The rules and the consequences are ever evolving, and it can be a bigger, scarier place to send our children.

This is one of the tougher topics to answer. I will say outright there aren’t clear black and white rules on this topic. I hesitate to come out with instructions that parents can follow, because so much depends on a child’s maturity and personality. But I’d like to provide a few thoughts that parents can consider when deciding how, and how much, to monitor their child’s online behavior.

When you first give your child a phone, or give her permission to join a social media site, you should let her know that you will have her passwords and access to her accounts. For more on what to consider when you first give a phone, read this post. My personal philosophy is that anything that a child puts on the internet or sends to another person is fair game for you to monitor. Anything that she does privately that is not intended for others' eyes, such as a journal, should be left private. If she doesn’t post her journal to a public site and it stays in her leather-bound book, it should be left alone. She should be able to write and process her feelings without worrying that someone else will come along and read it.

When she starts posting things online, that’s a whole different game. Many people, including adults, have very different public and private personas. It’s so easy to write something online that you would never say to someone’s face. Kids are seeing this happen all over the internet, and are likely to follow suit unless taught otherwise.

When I was a kid, my family taught me how to answer the family phone. I was to answer politely and to say my name so the caller knew who was on the line. This is something people used to teach. Do people still teach phone etiquette? Do we teach our kids how to comment nicely online? How to reply to negativity? What is appropriate to publish and what isn’t? We should ask our kids what image they want to portray about themselves in the world. How do they want to be seen? And then instruct them that everything they post online should align with that image.

So, I encourage parents to have access to their child’s texts and accounts and to monitor them from time to time. As they grow older, we can back off from the frequency of checking in. It’s like teaching your child to ride a bike. First, you use training wheels, then you have your hand on the back of the seat, then you run slowly behind the bike, and eventually she wheels away on her own. It can be the same with technology – first we monitor frequently. But as she starts to establish trust, we can check in less and less often. I can’t associate this with age, as age isn’t the best indicator of maturity. Parents should trust their instincts and think about how their child is using technology to decide if she’s ready to have more freedom.

What happens when you see something? If you don’t like the way your child said something to a friend over a text message, I encourage you to bring it up gently. You might say, “I don’t read all of your messages, but I do have them on my phone and every once in a while I see them. I saw that you sent this message to Kimberly. Here’s what I thought it sounded like. What do you think? How do you think it made Kimberly feel?”

If your child receives a graphic text, waste no time in addressing that with her. Having a graphic image on a phone can be considered child pornography, even if it’s on the phone of a recipient who did not ask for it. Delete it immediately and then have a conversation with your child about alerting you the second she receives something like that.

Of course for bigger infractions on your child’s part, you can suspend her social media accounts or temporarily take away her phone. But I encourage you never to punish her for honesty. If she comes to you to report something that she saw or received, she shouldn’t get in trouble for that.

The question is – is it snooping? And the answer, in my opinion, is no. Your child should always know that you have access to everything she does on her phone. Secrecy is never good. If we want our children to learn honesty, we can’t be dishonest with them. I do not condone secrecy or snooping. But I do condone careful monitoring as our children learn to navigate the world of technology.