When Does Monitoring Cross the Privacy Line?

The question of whether or not parents should monitor their children’s social media often triggers a lot of follow up questions. At what age should parents stop monitoring their child’s social media? Should they tell their child that they’re doing it, or hide it from them?

It’s all too easy for well-intended social media monitoring to turn into outright spying, so where should parents draw the line?

Some people believe that the duty of care supersedes any preconceived entitlement to privacy, while others think that breaching a child’s privacy does more harm than good. While both points are valid, this apparent divide amongst parents reinforces the need for a clear distinction between monitoring and spying.

The concept of spying is entrenched in stealthy, underhanded surveillance; like having hidden cameras installed throughout the house. Monitoring, on the other hand, promotes appropriate parental involvement and awareness; like asking a child to leave their bedroom door ajar when they have friends over.

Why Should Parents Monitor Their Child’s Social Media?

It’s our role as parents to guide our children through each new undertaking in their lives and the Internet is no exception.

Parents should absolutely monitor their children’s social media, but ideally with their child’s knowledge, and perhaps some sort of mutual agreement. Using spyware or stealthily surveilling a child’s phone can breed a culture of distrust; child psychologists and privacy experts believe that ongoing surveillance of a young person can “undermine trust, promote secrecy, and hinder their ability to assess risk and develop independence” [1].

The overall purpose of monitoring a child’s online activity should be less about ‘catching them out’ and more about encouraging them to actively self-regulate and avoid partaking in dangerous or reckless activity.

Of course, one of the biggest motivators for parents who monitor social media is the fear that their child will be targeted by a sexual predator or cyberbully. Encroaching a child’s privacy is a small price for a parent to pay in order to keep their child safe from online threats. However, it can nonetheless be upsetting for children (teenagers, in particular) to feel as if they’re not entitled to privacy.

Parents should feel encouraged to communicate openly with their teen about why it’s important for them to know what’s going on in their online lives. If your daughter or son thinks you read their social media messages simply because you don’t trust them, then they may become resentful and go to greater lengths to conceal things from you. This could place them in greater danger and leave you completely blind to their online activities.

How Should Parents Monitor Their Child’s Social Media?

Galit Breen encourages parents to think of monitoring their child’s social media as ‘cyber-driving’. When our children reach the appropriate age to learn how to drive, we are with them every step of the way, we don’t simply hand over the keys and wish them well. The same principle should apply to the Internet and social media.

“Teaching our kids how to manoeuvre online works in the exact same way (as with driving a car). Our kids need us to teach them how to make safe and wise choices online, and one very important part of this is monitoring their phone use. It’s not helicoptering. It’s parenting. No guilt required.” – Galit Breen.

When parents monitor their children’s social media, they need to first be aware of where their children spend their time. A passive scroll through all the major social media feeds such as Facebook and Instagram won’t necessarily reveal all of their interactions.

Remember, monitoring a child’s social media is far more likely to be effective if you maintain open communication with them about the apps that they’re interested in. It’s then your responsibility to take the time to understand how those apps work (and the age that they’re recommended for) whether by asking your child or by doing your own research. Try not to believe every sensationalised news story you see, though; there are plenty of reputable resources out there that will give you an objective overview of all of the latest apps and social networking sites, such as:

Common Sense Media

Office of the eSafety Commissioner

When your teen gets their first smartphone, you should establish a set of ground rules. This might entail a weekly-spot-check of their device. During the spot check, you might look at their:

  • Apps

  • Settings

  • Photos

  • Text Messages

  • Games

You may also consider letting your child be a part of the spot check. Ask them to show you their conversations, the apps they’re using, and the photos that they’ve taken recently.

As children get older, both their desire and their need for privacy increases. At this point, your level of involvement should reflect their level of responsibility and trustworthiness. Of course, even well-behaved teenagers can be targeted by online bullies or groomers, so you’ll want to stay involved. Try eliciting information from your teen by asking them about what’s going on in their relationships with their friends.

While parents are still very much needed for support and mentorship during late adolescence, this is typically the point in a young person’s life where they will need to start self-regulating and relying on their own moral compass. A crucial part of developing self-regulation skills is for teenagers to be guided by the lessons learned from making mistakes, managing conflicts, and establishing resilience and independence. After all, guilt and regret can be far more useful in helping children to establish core values than a scolding from a parent will ever be.



1. Adam Bisby, 2017. When Does Protecting Your Child Become Invasion of Privacy?

2. Galit Breen, 2017. How to Monitor Your Kid’s Phone Without Feeling Like a Snoop.

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