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Parents Spying on Teens

Kids today are growing up with technology — cell phones, IM and the Internet — as a natural extension of their environment and the tools available to them. The problem is, parents don’t see it that way.

The Boston Globe Magazine had an interesting article about the push and pull of parents desperately trying to control their teens’ technology and the connected environment they now live. But one of the key take-aways from the article is that no matter how much you may try and control it, you will end up losing if that is your only goal — control. Children and teens learn through example and the morals you instill in them from day one. If they don’t have them by the time they have access to technology, then you can’t “force” it through parental controls and such.

They had an example about a parent using all of the parental controls available to them through AOL and such. What parents seems to forget (are clueless about?) is how easy it is to get a free IM account elsewhere and use it at the local library to bypass all those controls, or over a friend’s house with less restrictive parents (and trust me, there are plenty). All the technology in the world can’t stop the creativity and ingenuity of teens who want to find a way to do something “forbidden.”

What a few parents don’t seem to have is simple trust in their own children. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for most of the time, especially when it comes to making new online “friends.” People know a creep when they meet one, even online. I guess it’s parental instinct to want to shield our children from all possible harmful or negative experiences, but we also have to trust in our previous 12 or 13 years worth of upbringing that the solid moral compass is in place in our children. Just like we can’t pick our children’s friends, we also can’t micromanage their online and technology experiences (nor should we try).

Luckily, most parents get it and seek to find that balance:

Yet they’ve come to accept that it’s just the way things are with his generation, which has refashioned the concept of time into a series of interruptions so constant that they hardly seem like interruptions anymore. As long as he’s keeping up his grades, they figure he’s handling things fine. And they always know exactly how he is doing in school, thanks to Edline, the service that Xaverian Brothers and schools across the country use to give parents continual e-mail updates on their children’s academic performance. Just the mention of Edline is enough to provoke a Pavlovian groan from Tim.

When they gave Tim his first cellphone at age 12 and he also began spending more time on the computer, Maura and Greg had the usual concerns. Every time Maura walked by the computer, she would ask Tim, “Who are you talking to?” But they had some advantages other parents don’t, namely Greg’s deep technical knowledge. In addition to his regular job, he freelances as a computer consultant, so, as Tim says, “he knows too much about computers” for his kids to expect to pull anything over on him.

Calling it his “fear of God” speech, Greg warned them, “I can know everything you’re doing online. But I’m not going to invade your privacy unless you give me a reason to.”

Which is precisely the point. Don’t assume your teen doesn’t know better and restrict them from experiences their peers are enjoying “just in case.” Trust first, or “trust but verify.” We can’t all be technical experts like Greg, but we can seek a balance between monitoring our children’s every conversation and setting some common sense ground rules when it comes to online interactions with others.

As technology becomes second-nature to the next generations, parents must understand that they can’t stop it, or try and limit the technology itself. What a parent can do is to set the rules and expectations for their teens, and take it from there. Remember, too, that teens seek independence. Just as driving and cars were an expression of that independence for an earlier generation, so cellphones and the Internet are for the current one.

Read the full article: Spying on the Text Generation

Parents Spying on Teens

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Parents Spying on Teens. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 8 Jun 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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