Should Parents Monitor Their Teen’s Online Activities?

Over the last 20 years, the environment in which an American child grows up has changed drastically. Information technology was nowhere nearly as advanced, the internet was a dial-up modem and a mobile phone often resembled a bulky, plastic brick. The idea of combining the clunky dial-up modem and the bulky phone-brick was inconceivable.

And yet, barely a generation later, we have evolved to lighting fast data networks making the internet accessible almost everywhere and most often incorporated into a phone that can do many of the things usually delegated to computers in the past. Times have changed and with that change comes new considerations for parents.

The saying goes that prevention is better than cure. In the case of monitoring children’s online activities, this saying could certainly be applicable. After all, preventing kids from being influenced by inappropriate content is probably a better way of making sure they grow up with a good moral education than trying to instill good morals after they have already been negatively influenced. However, the definition of “prevention” in this context is often misconstrued. The point is not to prevent children from encountering inappropriate content, but rather to prevent them from being negatively influenced by such content.

Most arguments for the monitoring of children’s online activities (and by extension, their phones) are based on the idea of preventing children from coming into contact with undesirable people, content or interactions in the first place. However, this approach is misguided and perhaps even impossible. For one, it’s unlikely that parents can consistently prevent their children from encountering inappropriate content. It also doesn’t consider the learning opportunities that can occur when children first encounter such content.

At an early age, it might be better to perform a blanket ban on undesirable content, but children below the age of 10 should probably have limited access to the internet anyway. As children get older, however, it might be helpful to allow them to learn from their encounters with such content. Under this vein of thought, monitoring should serve the purpose of informing parents when their kids come across inappropriate content, so that parents can teach their children about what to do in such situations.

What is critical is not the prevention of contact with inappropriate content and interactions, but rather the prevention of negative influences caused from such contact. With that in mind, misguided monitoring could end up being counterproductive. Firstly, it might create an environment of distrust, especially if parents are not upfront with their children about the monitoring. It’s similar with the governing of many countries: informed surveillance is protection whereas uninformed surveillance is spying. The family unit operates in a similar way: there is a thin line between protection and spying.

If you choose to monitor your child’s online behaviors, keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Tell your children that you are going to start monitoring their digital activities before you actually do. When doing so, clearly and logically explain your reasons for monitoring. If they find out that you have been monitoring them without their knowledge, it will likely alienate them as they will probably feel as if you have breached their trust.
  2. Talk openly about how the monitoring will work. Even if you inform your children about your plans to monitor their digital activities, there is still a thin line between protection and too much control. It will be difficult to teach children to respect the right to privacy when it appears as if your monitoring blatantly disregarded that right.

Ultimately, parents need to be very open, careful and nuanced about monitoring their child’s behaviors, especially as they reach their teenage years. Otherwise, it could end up being counterproductive and even harmful to the family.

As with many of the tools available to us these days, monitoring is merely one of the tools we can use to guide the education of our children. However, the effects of using such a tool – whether positive or negative – depends primarily on how it is used. Children cannot be sheltered forever in a bubble, especially in such a rapidly changing world. There isn’t one answer with regard to whether parents should monitor their children’s online activities. At the end of the day, it’s a choice all parents need to make for themselves and their families. As you’re thinking through it for your family, feel free to check out KidGuard’s Parents’ Survival Guide to Online Safety.

Do you have any digital monitoring tips that have worked in your household? Please feel free to share them in the comments below.

The KidGuard team consists of technology experts, researchers, and writers to educate parents on solutions to digital parenting problems. Our sole mission is to protect your children online bringing awareness and inspiring solutions on issues of cyberbullying, online predators, teen suicide, and childhood depression in the age of technology.