Digital Privacy: Is it OK to Spy on Your Teen?
Two experts with experience on how parents and teens navigate an increasingly digital world say the best way to prevent your teen from choosing to sneak around — or to prevent you from needing to spy on your teen — is to outline expectations with your child before you give out that first phone.
Katie Overcash of Charlotte, a licensed clinical social worker who counsels teens, doesn't like the word "snoop."
"It has a negative connotation," she says. "It means you are keeping tabs on your child's digital use behind their back."
She says her "whole theme is give and take" when it comes to dealing with children getting their first phone.
"You need to start out pretty strict," Overcash says. If children use their phones unrestricted until they are 15 or 16, "it will be a problem" if a parent finds out the phone is being used irresponsibly, she says. "As kids get older and show that they are responsible, you can back off a little bit."
Kate Paquin of Apex, a trained family and teen coach, agrees that parents should set guidelines early.
"The key is to establish strict guidelines, just like you would if they were driving a car or going out with their friends," she says. "The guidelines can be loosened later on, but they must be set from the get-go."
Overcash says compromise and finding a middle ground is crucial. "Parents can't be on the other end of the phone," she says. "It's not appropriate and not doable. You have to figure out that sweet spot."
Paquin, who has a son, 17, and two daughters, 15 and 14, says her children first got a phone because they were involved in sports activities and needed to let her know when they were ready to be picked up.
That was the case for Wendy Emerson of Tobaccoville, vice president of business services at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem. She has two daughters, 11 and 17, and gave her oldest daughter a cellphone when she was 12 so she could call when her athletic practice was finished for the day. She did something that both Overcash and Paquin say is a good idea — ensured that her child's first phone was only able to make calls, not facilitate texting or app downloads.
"When my daughter was 14, we got her a smartphone where she was able to send texts and have apps," Emerson says. "But we were pretty restrictive. The only apps she could have were games."
Emerson says she allowed her daughter to add Twitter and Facebook in the past year.
"She asked a couple of times why she couldn't have more things on her phone," Emerson says. "We had a very honest and direct discussion about it. She knows at any time my husband and I can sit down with her and go through her phone."
Emerson says her daughter uses Snapchat and recently had to delete her Instagram account.
"I said, look at pictures your friends have posted on Instagram. For example, there was a picture of a friend holding a volleyball trophy. I said, 'What do you see in that picture?' I told her what I saw was that the trophy clearly showed the girl's name, the school she attended and when she played volleyball. Anyone could take that information and find that girl."
Emerson handed down her oldest daughter's first phone to her second daughter when she was 9, but with the same rules.
Education is Key
Overcash says parents should know all of the passwords for their teen's social media accounts. But that is not enough.
"Parents need to educate themselves about social media and apps," she says. "Find out what sites your children are using and find out how the sites work. Talk to your kids. Say 'What can you do on here?'"
She explains that teens' brains are not completely developed, especially the part that understands long-term decisions. "Sometimes kids post something and get in trouble for that," she says. Maybe they are kicked off a sports team, or get sent to the principal's office. They don't completely understand what has happened."
Overcash says in those cases parents should "sit down with their teen, and ask them what kind of message [they] were trying to put out there, and what [they] thought people would get from it?"
Paquin, who teaches a class called "Social Media for Parents of Teens and Preteens," agrees that parents need to be educated. She sets strict guidelines on her children's phone use.
"Each night at 9 p.m., the kids hand the phone to me for the night," she says. "I don't want them staying awake using the phone."
She also doesn't allow phones in restaurants or at the dinner table.
Monitoring Your Child Online
Know your teen's passwords, advises Paquin. "If I can't log in to one of my children's phones, the phone is taken away," says Paquin. She cautions that many teens know how to make multiple accounts for one app. "Your child may have one Instagram for their parents to see and another account for their friends."
She also advises: Be aware of what your teens are doing on any device that connects to the Internet, not just their smartphone; put Internet restrictions in your home; and keep the family computer in an open space.
Parents also need to use caution when using what Paquin calls "the parents' social media" — Facebook.
"Parents should make profiles in Facebook private," she says. "Your pictures of young children, vacation pictures, can be prime ground for pedophiles."
Anne Wooten Green is a freelance writer based in Winston-Salem.