I asked this question on my social media platforms a few weeks ago. The answer from parents was a unanimous “Yes!” I have since done some more reading on the topic – both for and against – and realized it is a somewhat complex issue. And one that can do more harm than good when executed poorly.
The main argument against checking a child’s phone, monitoring their social media life and reading their texts is the issue of respecting privacy. As one writer put it, when we were kids our parents didn’t listen in on our phone conversations, read our diaries or eves drop on our chats with our besties. We would have thought them paranoid and accused them of having no respect for our privacy. Also, they didn’t hide behind bushes to see who we were playing with in the park or ask for a word for word report of every conversation we had every day. They would have looked like the worse kind of helicopter parent.
Isn’t checking their phone the same thing?
Not really. As another writer put it, “Privacy is for diaries, not for the internet.” What a child writes in a diary or whispers to her best friend cannot be screenshot and shared in a spit second. Our children need our guidance when the conversations they have are going out into cyberspace. And the places our children are playing in are not neighbourhood parks in a somewhat controlled environment. They are wide open spaces with no fences, where everything happens faster, boundaries seem less defined and strangers talking to each other is normal and natural.
Most children get their first phone around the age of 11, often younger. A child of this age is nowhere near mature enough to navigate the online space alone. Our kids may seem worldlier than we were at their age but they are no wiser. It’s a matter of brain development. They still do dumb things, just like we did. They are driven by emotion, desperate to fit in and often very impulsive. But now with a much bigger audience.
Added to that, they are still learning to understand tone, appropriacy and personal boundaries, as well as how to navigate rejection, conflict and meanness, so much of which happens online.
WHY WE CHECK
So what are some of the other reasons we need to check our kids’ phones? Here are some of the thoughts from parents who responded to my question:
“We are their filter and everything they do can be used to teach them a better way. A safe space for them to make mistakes is important.”
“They are still kids and with social media it is much easier to say things you would never say in person. This could be misconstrued and misinterpreted by others.”
“If what they or their friends are saying cannot be said in front of us then it shouldn’t be said. And to protect them from cyberbullying.”
“We are training them and it’s a process. We wouldn’t give them a motorbike without lessons and phones are much more dangerous.”
“Everyone should have someone that is allowed to check their devices whenever. A husband/wife, a friend, a parent. So phones in our house can be checked by parents at any time.”
I love all these comments! And so, in summary, we check our children’s phones:
- To keep them safe and ensure they are not being exposed to inappropriate content.
- To coach them in tone, language, appropriacy etc.
- To check they are following pre-agreed rules such as when they can use their device, who they can communicate with (eg no strangers).
- To create opportunity for conversations about relationships, feelings, situations etc.
But here is the most important part. No snooping! Unless you believe your child is in danger or involved in something serious, do not sneakily check their phone behind their back. This does nothing to build the vital trust needed for a healthy tween/teen – parent relationship.
Rather tell your child that one of the pre-agreed conditions of them having a phone is that you will be checking it from time to time and that nothing may be deleted. Tell them why. And then check conversations, YouTube histories and social media feeds from time to time, looking out for red flags or and concerning language or comments.
A few tips on this:
- Don’t call them out for every small thing they do wrong. Look for patterns or areas of concern. Remember you are a coach and are there to help your child navigate this new terrain.
- If you do see minor issues you disagree with, use them to discuss and reinforce values. For example if your child has spoken disparagingly about someone, talk about the value of respect, inclusion and love towards others.
- Don’t share the content of your child’s conversations with others. Even if it is something cute or funny! You need to be his/her safe space. The exception to this is if you think your or another child may be involved in something serious or dangerous.
- Don’t make these checks your primary source of information on how your child is doing. Fight for face-to-face connection!
So, in short, healthy phone-monitoring would be:
- Regular spot checks
- Good, healthy conversations about any posts/comments or situations you feel you child needs guidance in
- Your child coming to you for help or with questions
The regularity of the checks should decrease as your child shows greater and greater maturity and responsibility until ultimately you don’t feel the need to check their phone at all.
This is the goal, but it is a process. Young digital users need lots of help and guidance. Remember, it is not about snooping and controlling, but about supporting, training and releasing healthy digital users.