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The Non-Creepy Guide to Spying On Your Kids Online

Alright, James bond. The first rule of spying on your kids is… don’t call it spying. However, the reality is, in this day and age, you’ve got to monitor what your kids are doing online. The internet is a wild—and sometimes dangerous—place. You wouldn’t let a 16-year-old disappear on a road trip with friends without first […]

Alright, James bond. The first rule of spying on your kids is… don’t call it spying. However, the reality is, in this day and age, you’ve got to monitor what your kids are doing online. The internet is a wild—and sometimes dangerous—place.

You wouldn’t let a 16-year-old disappear on a road trip with friends without first teaching him how to read a map, knowing exactly where they were going, when they’d be back, and demanding regular check-ins, right? But let loose on Snapchat? 

The same general rules apply to running around online, whether they’re using laptops, iPads, smartphones… or all of the above. Without some degree of surveillance, education about online safety, and clear boundaries, they’ll easily make their way into environments you don’t want them in and/or make decisions to post and share things that could have long-term consequences.

Just don’t call it spying, because we all know that won’t help breed trust and respect in your relationships with them. Kids need to know that you’re monitoring but that you’ll give them the freedom they can handle, and if they succeed, they’ll get more.

I also like to remind them that until they’ve purchased a laptop or are paying their own cell phone bill, the devices they use are owned by their parents. So many kids want authority over what they see as their phone, so you’ve got to set up that dynamic at the beginning. “I let you use these if you use them responsibly, but you follow my rules until you have earned more trust”.

If you do it right, you’ll have to monitor them less and less as they understand the rules and assume responsibility for themselves. Depending on your kid, of course. Results may vary. And yes, there is all kinds of spyware that you can add to their devices so you can review every post they post and every site they visit, but I’d reserve that tactic for the kids that you have reason to believe are behaving badly.  

As a first move, here are a few guidelines I follow to keep tabs on my kids while not creeping them out… and hopefully setting them up with safe online habits for the future.

It’s Okay To Track Their Location

When your son or daughter is 18, hopefully they will have earned the right to go where they please and have some privacy. Until then, I think it’s perfectly normal to keep a digital eye on their whereabouts. I track my kids’ locations, but not so I can be Big Brother. It actually helps me avoid the nagging they hate. “Where are you?! When are you coming home?! Did you leave yet?!” I don’t have to send those texts, because I get alerts and can see where they are. Conversely, parents who harass kids constantly as a result of over-monitoring risk stifling the independence needed to for adult development. There are lots of ways to make tracking seem simple and natural and not overbearing. I like the Life360 app, and our whole family uses it: It helps me know when my husband has left the office, so I can get dinner on the table at the right time, and know when my daughter’s bus is about to roll in, so I can pick her up at the bus stop.

When your teen is a new driver, it’s incredibly helpful for nervous parents; just a glance at the app lets me know they got there safe. (Plus Life360

Tracking isn’t about not trusting your kids: it’s about quelling anxiety and letting live their lives without constantly checking in. If your kids aren’t old enough for their own smartphone (experts generally say to wait until middle school age), there are also wearables that can help.

Have The Smart Talk (And Keep Talking)

I know, yet another “talk” you’ve got to have with them in which they’re likely to roll their eyes and cringe at your clueless adult explanations. But I firmly believe talking to your kids about safety is the most important way to stay connected, involved, and informed about what’s going on in their online lives. I recommend sitting them down for a big talk where you discuss all of the big points—safety and privacy, screen time, respect on social media, etc.. Good tips in my tutorial on that talk, here.

Then, keep a constant dialogue about digital citizenship going. Sometimes I go through social media alongside my kids and point out other people’s bad behavior, like words that can be misinterpreted or things that might look bad to a college counselor or future employer. 

When they make mistakes, you’re also presented with an opportunity for a perfect teachable moment. For example, in one scenario my son shared his phone number on Instagram with a friend. He knew the rules about sharing personal information, but forgot in the moment, and once I pointed it out, it scared him to know that he could have made himself vulnerable. His account was private, so the risk was almost nil, but it was still a chance to review the rules—and he’s never forgotten it.

To Follow, Or Not To Follow

My two rules about social media accounts: (a) I have the passwords. Sorry but you don’t get an account that I can’t log into— won’t do it that often, but need to spot check every now and then. And (b) I follow my kids accounts, but I keep a low profile. Having your mom like and comment on everything you post is sooo awkward, and so I don’t really speak up or “like” anything— I’m just monitoring in the background.

Some of your kids might have fake instagram accounts, or “finstas,” which is a second account that they only want their close friends to see, where they can “be themselves” more… can you believe these kids are running multiple accounts? Talk with your kids about finstas, and come up with some rules that you can all feel good about: perhaps you’ll agree not to follow the account, but to keep the password do you can monitor activity (and DMs!) every now and again. If they change the password and I can’t log in? They risk losing their account.

Set Clear Boundaries

Your job is to set rules and boundaries, even if they will cross them when they’re out from under your watchful eye at a friend’s house. Be clear on the rules in your home, because that’s really all you can control. If they break the rules, start to monitor them more so they know that’s what happens when there’s been a breach of trust. Spell all of this out to your kids clearly, so they understand they can control their circumstances by behaving well.

I’ve found that, when my kids come back from a sleepover, that the “how do things work in their house?” topic can make for a great conversation. I usually broach the subject while we’re doing separate things— I’m cooking dinner, or they’re working on some light homework— so there conversation is a little less intense. I’ve learned all kinds of things about the rules (or lack thereof) in other people’s houses: Like how one child slept with their bedroom TV on all night, and it drove my son crazy, or how another family ate dinner in silence because they were all on devices… which was pretty awkward for my daughter. It can give your kids a renewed appreciation for their own house rules!

Curfew and no-tech times are also a great idea. For instance, set a few weekend hours when devices are all put away for family time, and/or set a night curfew when all devices have to be stowed and switched off. You don’t want them hiding under the covers with their smartphones. That’s not good in terms of what they can get into, but it could also affect their sleep.

By the way, in this realm, you’ve got to model good behavior or they’re not going to take you seriously. If you’re glued to five devices in bed, your kids will Monkey See, Monkey Do. Take your own advice and follow your own rules and they’ll be more likely to follow, too. (And you’ll all be healthier and happier)

Keep It All Out In The Open

This one’s pretty simple but really works. Even if you’re a laptop family, set a rule that says computers are only for common areas. This way, they can’t hide what they’re looking at, or how long they’ve been staring at a screen.

If they object to this, explain that it’s not that you need to watch their every keystroke, but that they shouldn’t be posting or searching for anything they wouldn’t mind you seeing.  Words can be screenshot and sent around the world. If you don’t think your mom should read it, maybe call your friend to say it instead.

Kids who have a strong adverse reaction to being monitored are probably the ones you need to worry about. If you walk behind them and they freak out, something may be wrong, and better that you know it right away.

Do you have other tactics for monitoring your kids’ online behavior that have really worked? Share them in the comments below!

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