Teens’ Phones: How to Be a Protective Parent While Respecting Your Child’s Privacy

As parents, we know how often our kids are on the phone. A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of U.S. teens say they are online “almost constantly.”

Teens’ phones can expose them to education, adventure, friendship, and fun, but dangers also exist. Kids need help navigating how to stay safe online, and parental monitoring can offer guidance and protection.

But with parental monitoring comes the question of privacy. How can parents walk the delicate line of keeping an eye on their kid’s phone and social media use while still respecting their privacy?

Consider your teen’s age and maturity level

It doesn’t matter how mature you think your teen is—his brain is still developing, and it won’t be fully developed until his mid-20s. Until then, teens are more likely to make impulsive decisions. If they are spending a lot of their time online, they are probably communicating with other teens who are just as likely to make potentially bad choices.

These decisions can affect your teen. Ask yourself if you think they can respond appropriately to the following:

  • Which school they attend
  • Suicidal comments from friends
  • Friend requests from unknown people
  • Threats from unknown people
  • Inappropriate invitations
  • A request for inappropriate photos
  • Cyberbullying and shaming online

In an ideal world, they would talk to you if any of these things were to happen, but teens are not typically known for open communication with their parents. A more likely scenario is that they are talking to their friends about how to respond, if they haven’t responded already.

Taking a proactive approach is your best defense in helping your teen through uncertain situations:

  • Talk to them about the type of scenarios they might come across on the internet or while using apps, including scenarios that include both their friends and strangers.
  • Set limits on how many hours a day they can spend on their phones or on certain apps. The more time kids spend on social media apps, the more likely they are to find trouble or get distracted from real life.
  • Don’t set limits without first talking to your teen about them (and why it’s important).

Know the apps your teen is using

Stay on top of your teen’s app use by periodically requesting to check their phone to see what they’ve downloaded.  If you see one you don’t recognize, research it to see if it’s safe or if it can pose any potential dangers.

Many kids are straying away from traditional text messaging because they don’t want their text history to be visible. Instead, they may opt to use a platform with disappearing messages and pictures that can keep parents from seeing what they are up to online. Apps like Snapchat and Instagram use this disappearing messaging strategy.

Using a parental monitoring app can help. You can also download and use the apps your child is using. Adding them as a friend allows you to keep an eye on their profile, posts, and comments, but it’s best to avoid friending any of their friends.

Be aware of the signs that something is wrong

Keeping an eye on your teen’s behaviors and moods can tell you a lot about what’s going on. Access to the internet allows people to express themselves differently than they might in real life, and your teen may experience cyberbullying, sexting pressures, low self-confidence, dominance or aggressiveness from others, or a sudden boost in popularity. They might not know how to handle any of these situations, and these tips can help open the lines of communication:

  • Talk to your teen about the symptoms of depression and the warning signs of suicide, for their own sake and for the sake of their friends.
  • Pay attention to changes in sleep patterns, moods, behaviors, and friendships. These are good indicators something might be going on in their life that you are unaware of.
  • Don’t assume that nothing is wrong just because your teen hasn’t said anything. Kids’ moods and emotions change all the time, and they can be greatly influenced by how their friends interact with them.
  • Don’t assume that your teen doesn’t want your attention just because they don’t talk much. Teens need to feel a sense of belonging, even while they are establishing their sense of independence.

Today’s popular social media apps have features that can make it difficult to monitor your teen’s online activity.  These steps can help you protect your teen online without interfering too much with their privacy. 

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