What are the Pros and Cons of Snooping on Your Kids Online?

I’ve changed my mind on the snooping question quite a bit since I began writing about family safety over five years ago. I’ve had to. Technology has dramatically changed all of us in that short time.

Still, at least once a month a parent asks me, “How much should I really be snooping on my child online?”

The answer to that question varies depending on your child’s age, maturity, and attitude toward online responsibility and safety.

A new study may also help you answer that question. The study recently reported on extensively in Forbes, sheds important light on how teens and parents communicate about risky situations online. The summary of that study: A lot happens online that kids don’t share with parents out of embarrassment and/or fear of punishment. The solution, say researchers: Better communication with your kids as the #1 way to help kids steer clear of risky digital behaviors.

The safety community, in general, has moved from an attitude of protection to preparation. The thinking?Invest your parenting muscle into building a healthy relationship with your kids — and putting communication and connection over fear and cyber stalking.

Ah, the pros and cons.

Monitoring has its merits but also comes with inherent drawbacks. Again, each parent has to find a balance that works in the context of his or her family.

The upside to monitoring, of course, is knowing where your kids go online, who they connect with, and the influencers (good and bad) in their lives. This is never a bad idea. Periodic monitoring renders valuable insight. By monitoring (okay, let’s just call it snooping) parents can coach, teach, and if needed, steer kids clear of potentially risky or emotionally damaging situations. You can discover situations such as cyberbullying, online harassment, conflict, sexual solicitations, and emotional issues kids of any age simply aren’t prepared to handle. It’s hard to argue against at least some monitoring when you know these issues are a very real part of kids’ lives today.

Still, the cons of snooping are huge, especially when the main goal is preparing our kids to handle online risks themselves. Snooping can break trust and set back communication. The chilling effect sets in. Kids get afraid to share what’s really going on because parents can overreact. Monitoring is also seen as an invasion of privacy — kind of like reading a child’s journal — and make mutual trust nearly impossible.

So it comes back to you, parent and getting brutally honest about the reality of your family dynamic. What is the quality of communication and degree of trust between you and your child? What’s the tone of your parenting — is it overly protective or proactive toward preparation? What can you do to begin moving that needle in favor of equipping? Here are a few ways to get your teen talking that we’ve shared in the past.

The study, outlined in Forbes, also offered great insight from researchers for parents who want to improve communication with kids about digital issues.

Communication Tips:

  • Pay attention to how you perceive and respond to the risks teens encounter online.
  • Tweak your responses when teens do share information to help bridge the gap of understanding what digital teens face today.
  • Withhold judgment and look for opportunities to help kids navigate some of the strange and disturbing experiences they may encounter online.
  • Understand that kids today live in a different world and are exposed to all kinds of content that may be alarming to us, but overreacting does nothing to help.
  • Avoid fear-based parenting, which is not the solution.
  • Ask your teens more often what’s happening—but resist the urge to lecture or freak out about what they share.

Consistent Calibration Needed

We’ve written extensively on this topic in the past and echo many of the points highlighted in the study. Parenting today requires calibration almost weekly based on new information and the rhythm of the relationship you have with your child. The first step is to be present and engaged with your kids and what’s going on in their world from their perspective.

Kids of all ages need and deserve respect for their personal privacy, but on the flip side, because the digital world plays out on a very public stage, there’s a need for purposeful parenting and safety that can’t be ignored. As kids go from middle schoolers to high schoolers it’s no longer about your trust in them that’s in the balance, but their trust in you.

Our three favorite words in parenting: Empathy, listening, and consistency. If you can empathize with your kids’ digital world and all of its moving parts, listen before you speak (or lecture), and be consistent with each, you are well on your way to improving communication with your kids as well as their and online safety IQ.

Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family.

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