I Spy: Should Parents Spy on Their Kids?

Parents need to be involved in their children’s online lives, especially when young children get their first smart devices and start exploring the internet. The term “spying” has a negative connotation and implies that you don’t trust your children. You want to establish a trusting relationship with your children but worry that spying on them to keep them safe implies a lack of trust. Is their online safety or physical security and privacy a good reason? Or is it never okay to spy on their phones and tablets and invade their privacy?

Consider the parenting tips here to explore the question of whether it’s ethically or morally responsible to spy on your kids. Keep in mind that expert opinions vary, and ultimately, the choice is up to you.

The Difference Between Monitoring and Spying

Some of the actions that parents take may look like spying, but they are ultimately done to keep their children safe. Spying implies activities you do without your child’s knowledge, such as secretly looking through your child’s device to see what they are doing online or installing spyware that gives you access to all their content. The term “monitoring” implies supervision while maintaining a relationship of trust. You have an awareness of your children’s online activity and talk with them about what they are seeing, doing and with whom they are interacting.

Safety Is the First Priority

Social worker and parenting expert James Lehman points out that the amount of monitoring you do should correlate to the amount of responsibility and honesty your kids demonstrate. Much of this depends on their age and developmental stage, but it’s up to you to determine what level of technology is appropriate for your child. Kids need autonomy to grow and develop into responsible adults, but the amount of responsibility you give them needs to be gradual. Young children need a lot of supervision and guidance to learn to make appropriate and informed decisions, but teenagers need your trust to grow into responsible adults.

Your child’s physical and online safety is of paramount importance, and for this reason, it’s important to know what your child is doing online. You can accomplish this without being a spy.

Keep Your Kids Safe Without Spying

Open and honest communication is the best way to approach the topic of monitoring your child’s internet activity. Regardless of your child’s age, the Get Safe Online organization advises parents to set clear boundaries and expectations as to the type of sites that are OK to visit, how much screen time is appropriate, and what kind of information they can share with others online. Spying and demanding their passwords and other information might backfire. Instead, use a trusted parental control app that allows for the entire family to be involved in the discussion about online use.

Encourage Self-Monitoring

In an interview with the Telegraph, parenting expert and psychologist Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell explains that a child who feels spied upon can “internalize the unhealthy idea that they are neither trusted nor safe” in the real or digital worlds. Encourage self-monitoring with older children and teens by maintaining a continuous dialogue about what they are doing online. This shows your children that you trust them enough to be responsible about what they are doing.

Place a Central Charging Station Outside the Bedroom

Don’t allow your child to take their smart device into the bedroom. In addition to disrupting their sleep patterns, allowing them to use their smart device in bed can lead to lack of transparency and may even lead to cyberbullying or other negative online behaviors. Even if you’re not spying on your kids, you need to maintain an awareness of what they are doing and when, and you lose this visibility if your kids take their phones with them into the bedroom. Be firm about this. There’s no need to use a smart device at bedtime. Set up a central charging station outside the bedroom where everyone (including you) puts their devices at night.

The Fine Line

Keep in mind that while you might intend to protect your kids, you might end up driving them further away by keeping tabs on their every move. No matter how much you monitor your children’s online habits, it’s impossible to know everything they do. You might worry that if something goes wrong, they won’t come to you and, therefore, make the decision to spy. However, this type of activity could push your child further into secrecy. Even if you monitor everything, you won’t be teaching your child how to identify right from wrong, says Jeffery Nadel, former president of the National Youth Rights Association.

Stacy Mosel, LMSW is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, certified Reiki practitioner, yoga enthusiast and musician. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Music from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1999 and a Master of Social Work from New York University in 2002. She has had extensive training in child and family therapy and the identification and treatment of mental health disorders.