Engagement, Not Surveillance, is What Kids Need Most

A question I’m often asked is, “How can I monitor my kids’ behavior when they are online?”

What the parent is really asking is, “How can I know what my child is doing on Snapchat or Instagram or wherever else they go when they are on their phones?” The reality is, you can’t. You could, but it would take an army of resources to really monitor your kids’ behavior the way that would satisfy most parents’ curiosities.

The motivated parent can: have unfettered access to her child’s phone; have the passwords to social networking apps; seize the phone and check conversation histories and interrogate about content, but to what end? If a child really wants to avoid detection, what’s to stop them from creating multiple (hidden or secret) accounts?

No matter how savvy the parent, a teen is likely to slip in an out of social media undetected in the same way that teenagers did a generation ago in the real world.  

“But I have their browser history?” Great, but what about “private browsing” mode?

“But I have all their passwords.” You do, to the accounts you know about.

“But I can see their pictures.” You can, if they aren’t deleted (and then deleted from the deleted folder).

“But I can access their phone whenever I want to.” True, but they know that and, depending on how often you actually mine their phone for information, they either always/sometimes/never sanitize their data for your inspection.

Peter Stackpole, May 1951.

Peter Stackpole, May 1951.

Trying to surveil your kid is a fool’s errand: in the same way you were able to fly under the radar of your parents’ watchful eye, your kids can do the same with you. It’s what being a kid is all about

You will have more success in the long run if you engage with your kids’ media and behaviors rather than try to surveil them. Just talk to them about their lives (real and virtual) and be interested and engaged. For real. Not feigned interest, but real interest, real engagement.  

Kids will be kids and they will make mistakes using media. These can be teachable moments if handled with empathy and if you can have an open heart to the world they are growing up and interacting in. Certain behaviors, such as bullying, sexting, or posting self-harm images, signal a need to be more involved as you would if those things were going on in the “real” world.

The temptation to surveil kids to “protect them” is completely understandable, but I advise against it. It’s OK for your teen to be in digital spaces. Online relationships are integral to adolescent development and social media can support identity formation.

Teach your children appropriate behaviors that apply in both the “real” and online worlds and hope it sticks. Parents have been doing something similar for generations.