Vlasak notes that with her 12-year-old son, these inquiries often lead to helpful conversations about online behavior, and even what to do when he comes across inappropriate content or things that make him uncomfortable. “I ask him a lot of questions, and I know he understands my philosophy, which is that he should quickly move past things that are too violent or mature,” she says.
How much is enough?
As with all things parenting, the younger your children are, the more involved parents need to be. The same goes for monitoring budding teens' online activity. “One thing to remember is that while our middle schoolers may seem tech-savvy, they are still beginners. They need us,” Hofmann says.
She advises that parents first create a working set of expectations, as well as rules and boundaries — knowing that these can change as their child grows and matures. The rules will vary depending on individual family values, and kids’ behaviors and needs. However, 2/3 of parents report that they limit or prohibit their 13-year-olds' social media use, 54% limit the amount of time their teens spend online, and 40% do some sort of surveillance, such as knowing their children’s account passwords or following their friends online.
When it comes to actual monitoring, there are numerous apps, software solutions and even Wi-Fi routers that can help. Some of the most common tools implement automatic time limits, monitor text messages, filter content, review social media posts and more. Hofmann particularly likes OurPact, VISR and Torch.
Still, there’s a difference between simply knowing what your child is doing and using their activity as a jumping-off point for more education. Vlasak notes that in the first months of watching her son’s Instagram account, he received multiple inappropriate messages from strangers. His peers also made online comments that poked fun at people’s looks and created posts that ranked classmates by popularity or appearance. “We end up addressing things as they come along,” she says.
Mistakes will be made
Parents are monitoring their kids' online and social media use often with the broad goal of helping them avoid negative experiences. But they're not always successful. The UT Dallas-CNN study reports that parents of middle schoolers “systematically underestimated how much negative emotion and problematic behavior their children were experiencing,” even when they felt aware of their kids’ online lives.
Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, says more than constant monitoring, kids need a trusted parent or adult who they can turn to for advice and support, especially when it comes to digital drama. “It’s important that kids know that they can come to us, even if they’ve made mistakes,” she says.
Parents may not be able to shield their teens from everything, but they can help them learn to fix online problems. For example, they might advise on how to address a friend whose feelings they’ve hurt, to delete an image they regret posting, or why it’s important to respect people’s privacy by not texting them late at night.
The bottom line: Monitoring your child’s online activity can go hand in hand with teaching good digital habits. Hofmann notes that it's also about opening up lines of communication and establishing trust between you and your child.
“If we think about the digital world like we think about any other aspect of a child growing up or parenting, then we step into a place of confidence and empowerment,” she says.