Why Are So Many Parents Spying on Their Kids?

There it is: your teen’s phone, left (shockingly! fleetingly!) unattended. Maybe you’re ready to guess at the passcode; maybe you already know the code because that’s the agreement in your house. Either way, you are suddenly seized with an intense desire to see what your offspring is up to online. Friends: Don’t do it. Seriously. Parents, when did we decide it’s okay to snoop on our kids’ phones? Because it’s not.

Unless you’ve got reason to believe your child is up to no good — or is in harm’s way — leave that phone where it is.

Now hear us out: If you have a real reason to suspect that your child is in danger — we’re talking suicidal ideation, an eating disorder, possible drug use, underage binge drinking, sex with scary strangers, online gambling, cyberbullying, masterminding a bank robbery or a school shooting — all bets are off. We understand; as parents, you’ve got to do what you’ve gotta do to keep your child (and the children around them) safe. That’s your job.

But those extenuating circumstances aside, snooping on your teen’s phone can definitely do more harm than good. Here’s why.

Reason #1: It’s a violation of trust, aka the bread and butter of good parenting.

Say you snoop — and you get caught snooping when there’s nothing going down on their social media apps, except the latest dank meme. (If you don’t know what a dank meme is, ask your kid without snooping, and enjoy watching them crack up at your question. Teen parenting hack: If they’re laughing at you because of question you ask, you’re still communicating, and that’s always good stuff. Plus it’s nice midlife character-building for you; we’re never too old to learn that no question is a dumb question.)

Anyway, if you snoop and get caught, you’ve just convinced your kid that you’re not someone to be trusted when the big problems (such as the aforementioned suicidal thoughts or peer pressure to join in on an armed robbery) crop up. Is that something you want to risk, especially if your relationship with your child is pretty solid overall? Nope. No way. Trust is everything to preteens and teens. As my now-college-bound daughter put it so succinctly, “Teach them that their autonomy is valuable, and that you will always choose to trust them, unless they break your trust.” I did not even pay her to say that, so there you go.

Reason #2: It’s addictive.

Say you snoop — and you don’t get caught. Congratulations: You’ve just created a monster: you. It’s addictive, to get a peek into their private world, we get it. Our once-tell-you-about-everything offspring are now mysterious, elusive, confusing humanoids approaching (or exceeding) our own height measurement. But if you’ve snooped successfully once, what’s going to stop you from doing it again? Well, hopefully, a little thing called guilt — but honestly, most of us parents are so downright hungry for the 4-1-1 on our nearly grown babies, a twinge of guilt might not stop us from peeking again at our kid’s Finsta account (again: Don’t know what a Finsta is? Swallow your pride and ask. They may die laughing, but they will die laughing knowing that they have a parent who cares and is interested in their secret culture. Win.)

Reason #3: It’s ruining your chance for conversation — and connection.

If you’re concerned about your kid, and your first approach to this problem is to try to hack their computer or phone, you’ve just blown an opportunity whether you’ve been found out or not. You’ve missed a chance to connect, to say in your plainest, realest voice, “Hey, I love you, And I’m worried because X. Can you talk this through with me?”

That’s always going to be the best first choice. Opt for discussion over accusation, no matter what your suspicions are and how valid you may think they are. Keep your concern on your kid — and not your own ego. I’ve met a few parents along the way who say, “I don’t want my kid to pull one over on me” or “I’m not going to let my kid lie to me, I know what teens do, I was a teen once.”

Yeah, we all do know. And we didn’t have cell phones and laptops when we were teens (well, fine, speaking for me), so we actually had more free time to get into trouble — and come up with creative tall tales to skate free from our parents’ possible suspicion.

The thing is? This isn’t about you. At least, it doesn’t have to be. It’s about your child — and about the bond that you either want to nurture, or risk. It’s your call.

I talked to my 15-year-old about her take on the matter. She mused over the snooping question and had this to say: “They might not like it, but their kids are longing for privacy right now. And it’s normal to have memes or junk that they don’t show their parents.”

She’s not wrong: Adolescence is a time when (psych phrase alert) differentiation kicks in. What’s that? you might be saying if you made crap choices yourself and slept through the Psych 101 lecture in question. It’s the time when teens naturally begin to pull away from their parents and establish their own unique identities, as part of the normal growing-up process. They want to be different from you, and that’s a groovy sign that all is going well, even if you feel sometimes like you’re Mission Control and they’re Apollo 13 somewhere on the dark side of the moon. In other words, it is psychologically critical to them that they know what dank memes are, while you’re still wondering if a dank meme has anything to do with unpleasant cellar mildew. Rebellion — in big or small ways — is part of the parenting deal.

As my secondborn phrased it, “[Parents] might not wanna see what they find. But teaching kids about privacy and responsibility is important. Taking it away is only gonna make your kid more inclined to either steal it and be sneaky, or invade yours.” Out of the mouths of babes, people.

So start early. Foster an open, nurturing environment with your child —  but don’t be afraid to establish from the beginning that having a phone or laptop and various social media apps is a privilege, and never, ever a right. Be the boss; they’ll appreciate the structure.

When my girls first got phones, I sat them down for a dorky mom convo, explaining that the world can be scary, and that good kids can sometimes get sucked into bad places or activity online. I told them part of the deal (this was early-teen-years era) was that I had the right to revoke online or cell privileges at any point if I felt they couldn’t handle the responsibility. I also asked them for their passcodes and passwords and kept a list. I let them know that I wouldn’t use them to pry into their online lives unless I ever had good reason to believe they were tangled up in something harmful that they weren’t talking to me about.

Guess what? I never needed to use those passwords. Instead, I asked my girls once in a while to show me the dankest memes and their Finstas and the latest Vine (before Vines died and were reborn as dank memes). As Daughter #2 told me, if I had snooped on her phone, “it would be hard to trust or feel safe again. I’m not sure a parent could expect to really regain that trust back. Our lives are different from yours; we’re online a lot, and those communications are really important to us.”

She added, as her advice to parents of preteens and teens, “Unless you’re worried your kid is in danger, it’s more about trusting you created a good base for communicating, and that your kid trusts you, no matter what happens.”

Trust is huge, parents — definitely more huge than that dank off-color meme you’re probably not going to fully get anyway. When in doubt: Let it go. Prioritize trust unless you have reason to believe your child’s in trouble. The payoff will likely be far bigger — and far better — than you can imagine.

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