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How Parents Can Monitor Kids Online (Without Being Intrusive)

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Josh's presentation about social media was unbelievably fantastic. Our students learned so much about what kids should and shouldn't be doing. The fact that it is such a thoughtful process made it all worthwhile.

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How Parents Can Monitor Kids Online (Without Being Intrusive)

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Sometimes, monitoring your student online can make you feel overprotective, but 97% of teens are using the internet at least once a day, and according to a recent statistic from GuardChild, 43% of teens say they would change their online behavior if they knew that their parents were watching them. Therefore, it’s important for parents to monitor their students’ online activity. The best way for parents to monitor kids online (without being intrusive) is to be on the same social media platforms that they use and have regular discussions about their online activity.

If you need help navigating the apps that your student loves, visit our Parent App Guide page and learn how you can keep them safe on each specific platform. Once you’ve become familiar with the platforms that your teen is on, start monitoring their activity and learn the importance of parental controls. If you’re wondering where to start, check out the advice below. We asked 4 experts to share their best tips on how parents can monitor and interact with their teens on social media without feeling like an intruder.

1. Using the same apps as your teens is the best way to learn

Angela Roeber headshot
Angela Roeber
Angela Roeber, Director of Communications at Project Harmony

You get a new phone for your teen, or your child asks to play Minecraft for the first time - what do you do? The first thing you want to do is learn about the app or the website your kids want to use (or are already using). What is it? How does it work? What are the risks? This can be done in several ways.

Using the apps in question is the best way to learn. Parents need to get on the app/game/website that their student is using and use it too. This can give you an idea of what the app does and how your child or teen may use it. It can also alert you to possible risks. However, trying it out may not give you the whole picture, so there are a few other ways to learn about the online resources your child wants to use. Google (or any search engine) can lead you to a wealth of information about any tools or apps. Instead of just searching for the name of the app or website, consider adding search terms like, risks, teen use, child use, or problems. This will lead you to issues that others may have identified about the app or website.

Setting rules and expectations for app, cell phone, computer, and internet use is key to keeping kids safe online. Use a social media or technology contract (SmartSocial Family Media Agreement) and go over it with your children to make sure expectations are clear. Make sure to have a conversation so your kids can understand the rules and can ask you questions. Rules can be general (e.g., no video games on weeknights) or very specific (e.g., you can only play YouTube videos on the living room computer when other family members are present).

Make sure your screen time rules apply to other people's houses and be clear with other parents about what your rules are. It's also very important to make sure that if your children encounter bullying, attempts at trafficking or sextortion, or inappropriate content, they will not lose their device privileges if they report to you. It's been found that when children think THEY will be punished for being cyberbullied or sextorted, they are much less likely to report the incident.

Have regular, ongoing conversations about online safety - a one-time discussion is not enough. Talk to your kids about what they like to do online and what apps their friends are using. This way you can address issues as they arise, rather than being surprised by them.

Monitoring can look different for every family, every kid, and certainly every age group. Parents should consider keeping computers in a central location and requiring or encouraging media use in public spaces (like living rooms vs. bedrooms). Different age levels may have different levels of monitoring. Monitoring kids online helps keep track of their activities on a website, game, app, etc. That may mean reviewing the apps they download on their phone, following them on Instagram, or even doing spot checks of their computers. Sometimes, you may need to monitor more heavily than at other times. If you feel that you want to install in-depth parental control apps on your family's computer(s) or other devices, there are a lot of options out there. Some popular options that we've found consistently rated highly by experts include Phone Sheriff, ContentWatch's Net Nanny 7, the Symantec Norton Family Premier, and Qustodio Parental Control (read SmartSocial's review of each comprehensive parental control app on our Parent Control Software page). Note that these options are not perfect, each offer different levels of monitoring, such as how parents can control settings and be alerted to issues. Keep in mind that even with these social media monitoring solutions, parents still need to stay on top of children's online use. Online safety should remain a part of your family's regular discussions.

If you create a social media or technology contract with your children, keep up your end of the bargain. Make sure to enforce things like phones off by 10pm or no texting during dinner. If you tell your children not to be on a certain app, you'll want to check their phone to make sure they haven't been on that app. In addition, it is important that you also follow the rules in order to lead by example. We all are guilty of telling our children that we shouldn't have phones at the table during dinner, but then we answer a text or work email as it pops up. New research is showing the cell phone use by parents - particularly during times they are interacting with their children - can impair learning and behavior. Therefore, it is important to model the behavior you want to see your children engage in.

2. Work with your kids to develop a purpose on social media

Josh Ochs headshot
Josh Ochs
Josh Ochs, Author and Founder of Smart Social

Instead of using social media as a pastime, work with your kids to develop a purpose on social media. Before your student is ready to be public in the online world, help them to determine what kind of content they want to be known for online. Teach them to contemplate how their digital footprint will be seen by future employers and college admissions officers. Consider creating a Family Media Agreement that clearly outlines the rules of having a phone before giving your student their first device. Following these steps can help your student self-regulate the content they post on social media and help them build a positive digital footprint. Learn more about how teens can use social media with a positive purpose by reading our resource: Positive Impact of Social Media & Screen Time.

To monitor your teen at home, use Google in "incognito mode" and search the phrases below (be sure to review these search results regularly):

  • First Name + Last Name
  • “First Name + Last Name” (in quotes)
  • “First + Last” + City
  • “First + Last” + School
  • First, Middle, and Last Name
  • Social Media Usernames
  • Image Results

3. Have your own accounts on the same social platforms that your children use

Emily Mendez, M.S. EdS, Published Writer and Mental Health Expert

Find out what social media sites your kids and teens are using -- Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube, for example – and have accounts of your own. Follow your kids' accounts and monitor what they share with others. Check the privacy settings on your kid's social media sites and talk to them about what they (and their friends) post.

Also, use tools like Apple's Family Sharing feature. This parental control feature allows your tween and teen to use their smart phone and social media and provides you with a way to monitor and set screen time limits to what they are doing online. Tweens and teens should understand that you will have access to all of their passwords and user IDs as a condition of having these social media apps.

4. Help your student develop a healthy relationship with social media through discussion

Leila Sales headshot
Leila Sales

Leila Sales, Author

While the basics of internet safety are obvious to most children and parents (e.g. “don’t give out your address to strangers”), it’s easier to overlook the detrimental psychological effects that social media can have on us. Below are some talking points parents can use to help their student develop a healthier relationship with social media:

  • Imagine your post being seen by the person you least want to see it. For example, if you’re posting a mean joke about a teacher, imagine that teacher reading it. If you excluded a friend from a party, imagine her response to those party photos before you upload them
  • Just because you want to put something in writing, doesn’t mean you need a limitless audience for it. If you just write something in your journal, or in a text to one friend, that may scratch the same itch without leaving you open to public scrutiny
  • Don’t put anything on the internet that you wouldn’t be willing to say in person. For example, if you wouldn’t tell a friend to her face that you’re angry with her, you shouldn’t be aggressively hinting about it on Snapchat
  • Remember that people’s portrayals of their lives on social media are curated. Nobody is as effortlessly happy and beautiful as they appear on Instagram. Avoid comparing yourself to fiction
  • Remember that everyone on the internet is a real person, with hardships and feelings every bit as real as your own. It’s easy to lash out at somebody online when they are just an avatar or a screen name. It becomes more difficult when you remember that they are a fully-formed individual, just like you

Additional Resources

First Phones for Kids (Gabb vs. Pinwheel vs. Bark vs. Troomi)

Parental Controls on Student Devices

Google Play Parental Controls: How to Block Mature Apps & Media

Digital Wellbeing and Parental Controls for Android: Complete Guide for Parents

Google Family Link Guide for Parents & Educators

For younger children read our YouTube Kids resource

5 Ways to Protect Your Kids in the Digital Age

Conclusion

It can be tricky to monitor your child's online activities. Teens know how to hide their behavior on social media (usually within a private messaging feature), they are constantly downloading new apps, and they learn new platforms incredibly quickly. The more parents monitor their childrens's online activities, the safer they will be. It doesn’t mean that you’re being intrusive if you monitor your teen on social media. By following the advice above, you will have a better chance of keeping your family safe online. But parents must remember that the best parental control app in the world, is a good parent child relationship and an ongoing dialogue.

How do you monitor your student’s online activity? Let us know in the comments below!

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Quotation marks

This is great info, thanks for giving me some ideas on how to start a dialogue with my teen!

StarStarStarStarStar

Sharon M.

Parent VIP Member

Quotation marks

Josh's presentation about social media was unbelievably fantastic. Our students learned so much about what kids should and shouldn't be doing. The fact that it is such a thoughtful process made it all worthwhile.

StarStarStarStarStar

Director of College Advising

Educator Webinar Attendee

Quotation marks

This webinar is a very helpful eye-opener on the apps that are popular with my students.

StarStarStarStarStar

Irene C.

Educator Webinar Attendee

Learn more

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