Balancing trust and safety: How parents can monitor their teen's digital activity

With a few tools, parents can ensure their teen’s digital behavior is built on mutual trust.

 

Tools for parents

  • Tracking programs and apps
  • Limiting teens' online activity
  • An electronic usage contract
 

Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 61% of parents “have checked which websites their teen has visited.” Between giving their teens privacy and freedom to express themselves, while also ensuring protection from the potential dangers of the internet, parents face a delicate balance. Many feel it’s important to monitor or limit their child’s internet behavior — from browsing to social media — until they reach a certain level of maturity or media literacy.

Luckily, as internet use has become more prevalent in teens’ everyday lives, researchers have identified new ways to keep teenagers safe while preserving room to still explore and learn.

Understanding social media

The potential for unmonitored and unlimited online interactions can make it difficult for parents to screen the content and sites their teens view. Even if parents take steps to limit their child’s browsing capabilities, inappropriate apps and websites can still be accessed with a friend.

But understanding the nuances and potential dangers of popular apps and platforms can help build a sensible monitoring strategy. Service provider or third-party tracking programs and apps — like PhoneSherriff or WebWatcher — allow parents to monitor and catalog what teens are viewing.

And while Facebook and Twitter are everywhere, it’s important that parents have some familiarity with the other apps teens are using. Common Sense Media flags Kik, WhatsApp and Tumblr as other potentially dangerous online spaces, because they allow teens to hide conversations and talk to anonymous strangers in an unsecured environment. The lesson? Media literacy is as important for parents as it is for teens. 

Parents can micromanage their child’s accounts and internet usage, but that may set up an environment of resistance and distrust.

Raychelle Lohmann

Author of “The Bullying Workbook for Teens.”

 

Proactively tracking and limiting access

Using apps to monitor a teenager’s online activity is not an uncommon parenting strategy. According to the Pew Research Center, 39% of surveyed parents had used “parental controls or other technological tools” to block sites and apps.

Monitoring a teen’s online life may give parents peace of mind, but it is by no means a silver bullet. Research from Dr. Gustavo Mesch, dean of social sciences at the University of Haifa and a specialist in teen interactions with the internet, suggests that parents who tightly monitor their children in an attempt to minimize unsafe online behavior may actually achieve the opposite effect. His study found this lack of freedom can drive teens to hide risky behaviors

Dr. Mesch asked parents to try three different strategies for monitoring browsing habits: supervision, guidance and non-intervention. When surveyed parents actively and judiciously monitored browsing behavior and put stringent restrictions in place, teens were more likely to “engage in risky online behavior.”

Teens know the loopholes

“Many teens are more tech-savvy than their parents,” says Raychelle Lohmann, a counselor focused on teen behavior and cyber habits, and author of “The Bullying Workbook for Teens.” Some of the tools at teens’ disposal, which parents may not fully grasp, are “online privacy settings, disabling cookies [and] clearing browsing history,” Lohmann says. Teens generally can find a way to access the content they want, and the more pressure parents put on them, the more likely they are to try and hide their behavior.

“Parents can micromanage their child’s accounts and internet usage, but that may set up an environment of resistance and distrust,” Lohmann says.

The breakneck pace of technology also can put savvy teens one step ahead of monitoring apps. Lohmann notes that teens can set up “smoke screens” or install apps designed to hide objectionable behaviors from parents.

Some parents may feel it’s best to limit which devices their teens can use or only allow access when they reach a certain age. When asked how often they restricted internet or app access, 46% of parents of older teens told Pew Research that they “limit how long or when their teen can go online.” And 63% noted that they have “digitally grounded” their teen at least once.

Lohmann suggests using age as a milestone for when parents can remove the digital training wheels, unless the parent suspects the older teen of “engaging in harmful behavior." Though there are no hard and fast rules or maturity milestones, Lohmann recommends common sense — and common decency. “Monitoring a 13-year-old would look different from monitoring a 17-year-old,” she says.

Bridging the gap between safety and freedom

Aside from checking browser history, parents can set up a fair system for how teens use their devices and how to best monitor their behavior while maintaining a sense of freedom. Lohmann suggests putting it in writing.

“An acceptable electronic usage contract is a great way to document expectations,” she says. “Parents need to establish clear expectations, set the rules and stick to them.” 

As your teen matures and gains a higher level of media literacy, they should be granted access to new sites, apps and responsibilities. It should be gradual, and it will differ for each teen. “I believe in treating teens with respect,” Lohmann says.

Think of it this way: It’s all about training a teen to navigate the internet safely, smartly and with a certain level of skepticism. Every teen is unique and requires a different approach. There is no perfect or exact age to set a teen free. Rather, it’s about gradually granting more freedom as it is earned.

“Just as parents wouldn’t toss their teens the keys to the car without any background knowledge of how to operate the vehicle,” Lohmann says, “they shouldn’t toss them a device without any knowledge about how to properly use it.”

 

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