How to Monitor Your Child's Online Activity Without Invading Their Privacy

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As a parent, it can be challenging to navigate your child's online world. I know, I’m a parent to three teens. When my son was a toddler, the iphone was making its claim on the market…and what I didn’t know at the time, our kids. It was fun, exciting and something new. They had a tangram app, I remember very clearly, and my son took to it immediately. I thought to myself, as an educator and a parent, how can this be bad? He’s learning, he’s using fine motor skills, he’s developing spatial awareness. Well, fast forward to 2023, he’s now 18, and his entire world is screens. But it wasn’t an easy journey getting him, or my other two, through those years. We had our arguments, our disagreements, and our complete moments of blocking all tech. 

As parents, you want to make sure they are safe and responsible. You want to keep them protected. You want to make sure you’re doing the right thing, and so you read every article and book, and try to keep an open mind to reading both sides of the argument of screen time. When they are younger, it's easy to make rules, set boundaries and use monitoring apps. As they get older, the conversation changes, and they become defensive about you checking in on them, but even more so, their phones. You don't want to invade their privacy or create a negative relationship, but as a parent, you feel it's your duty, your job. You might walk on eggshells, because they finally found their voice and are trying to stand up for themselves, and they aren’t afraid to say it. It’s a hard time as a parent. That's why it's important to approach the topic in a positive and constructive way, focusing on opening the conversation and promoting digital wellness.

Digital wellness experts, and my ultimate gurus, like Kristy Goodwin, Anne Collier, and Nina Hersher, emphasize the importance of building a positive relationship with your child regarding their online activity. They have a wealth of information and are working with many schools and organizations on the topic of digital wellness. As a digital wellness educator myself, I have taken what I’ve learned (and put into practice with my own), and came up with some tips for parents to start the conversation and promote digital wellness:

digital wellness heather b

Show interest and curiosity

Encourage your child to share what they are doing online, what apps they are using, and what content they are consuming. By showing interest and curiosity, you can create a safe and non-judgmental space for your child to talk about their online experiences. I’ve done this with my own. A simple, “how does that app work?” or “why do you like that app?” goes a long way. You’ll be surprised at how they actually want to show you their world. 

Be supportive

Instead of immediately criticizing or scolding your child for their online behavior, such as scrolling, TikToking, Snapping, etc, try to be supportive and understanding. This can help your child feel comfortable discussing their online experiences with you. You can ask open-ended questions to encourage discussion and active listening to show you care. You can ask what they are gaining from these apps and experiences, and how they feel they are adding value to their lives. A few years ago, I thought my son was endlessing scrolling videos and I was becoming annoyed. I decided to ask him what he was doing and why. Come to find out, he’s watching videos on science and engineering and learning way more than he was learning in a classroom, and in an engaging way. He was pursuing his interests. One of my daughters has helped countless friends in emotional situations, when I think she’s just doom scrolling. We have to give them a chance to explain.

Set a good example

As a parent, it's important to model responsible digital behavior. Show your child how to use technology in a balanced and healthy way, and make sure to prioritize face-to-face communication and other offline activities. Avoid being distracted by your phone or other devices when spending time with your child, and encourage family time and outdoor activities. I know, this is hard. So much so that I recently saw an ad for a fake book that holds a phone with the intended use of making the child think the parent was reading and not on their phone! Ok, that’s going a bit far! Again, if we can put some tiny habits in place, like phone free dinner/movie/game time, it’s a start. 

Talk about online safety

I don’t often harp on this one, because there are countless resources and information out there about digital citizenship and online safety, whereas I focus on digital wellness and finding a healthier way to engage with technology. But, yes, it’s important to discuss online safety with your child and teach them how to protect their personal information, avoid strangers online, and report any concerning behavior. Teach them about the dangers of oversharing and the importance of password security. Share age-appropriate online safety resources with your child and encourage them to ask questions. I went through each phone set up with my kids, teaching what the privacy settings should be and why, and checked in with them multiple times.

Encourage critical thinking

Teach your child how to critically evaluate online content and recognize fake news, propaganda, and other misleading information. Again, this usually falls under the digital citizenship side of the conversation, but still important. Encourage them to fact-check sources, be skeptical of sensationalist headlines and to seek different sources for information. We STILL have to question some of the things that come out of our kids’ mouths when they share information they’ve read online. It’s amazing what they’ll believe and reshare because they say a TikToker say it.

Use parental controls as a tool

Parental control software can be a helpful tool for parents to monitor their child's online activity, block inappropriate content, and set time limits on device usage. Instead of using them as a means of censorship, use them as a way to help your child learn how to balance their online and offline activities. Work with your child to set reasonable time limits on device usage and establish clear rules for internet use. I was a big fan of Our Pact, and it’s what we used for YEARS. We talked about the hours they could have access or access would be blocked, and why (sleep, homework, dinner, etc), so that everyone was on the same page. Use it as a tool, not as a ban.

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Here's some recent survey results from the Digital Wellness Lab, "Adolescent Media Use: Meidation and Safety Features".

Remember, by teaching kids how to use the technology around them in a  responsible way, we are helping them build a better, more positive relationship that will continue to grow as they go through life. 

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