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Monitoring Your Teen’s Cell Phone. What’s Right? And What’s Too Much? - Michael Hackmer

Monitoring Your Teen’s Cell Phone. What’s Right? And What’s Too Much?

Stacy is an honor roll high school student in Virginia. She participates in a number of school activities, is active in her church and has a large circle of friends. One weekend, she went on a sleepover and came home with a streak of blue in her hair. Stacy and her friends were just having a bit of fun. Her mother was less than enthusiastic.

Not only was Stacy told to wash her hair out until the blue was gone, she was ordered to turn over her cell phone and laptop. Stacy’s mother went through every email and text message. It was not long before Stacy was banned from seeing certain friends and given a strict punishment. Her mother had found some text messages that she thought were not appropriate.

Every parent wants their children to be safe from online predators, inappropriate material, bullying and other types of abuse. We want our kids to be good people and act responsibly. Most of all, we want them to have the opportunity to be kids, have a happy childhood and grow up to be good young adults.

But at what point does monitoring your teen’s cell phone cross the line between good parenting and an invasion of privacy? When it comes to supervising our teens, what is right and what is too much?

It is estimated that over 20 million people have downloaded Life360, a location app that allows family members and others within specific “circles” to instantly see where each person is on a map. There are other apps for monitoring teen cell phone activity such as Code9 Mobile, which allows you to set up word-based rules to alert you to inappropriate content. TeenSafe has similar functionality (across texting and social media) and boasts over 500,000 active users. When it comes to monitoring your teen, there are hundreds of options such as MamaBear and SMSTracker that are popular among parents.

According to Pew Research, 64% of parents look at the contents of their children’s cell phones. Though this trend dissipates as children get older, the one constant is that girls are more likely to lose their phone as punishment (69%) than boys (55%), and girls are more likely to have the contents of their phones monitored (50%) than boys (46%), albeit by a smaller margin.

Of course, none of this is really surprising. Parents are concerned about their teens, and tend to be more protective of (and paternalistic to) girls than they are with boys.

Yet what parents do not take into account is that all teens face the prospect of unwanted messages (sexting, spam, etc) as well as harassment and bullying via their cell phones – just as they do in school, sports and online. In fact, about 26% of teens can expect to receive such treatment through their cell phones, whereas approximately 30% of teens are suspected of facing bullying in their schools. Do we, as parents, need to track what happens and what gets said in the hallways, sports fields and other places our teens go?

What is particularly interesting about the data on teen cell phone use is that teens who do not have time limitations on their phones, and do not have restrictions or parents who use software/apps for active monitoring of their cell phones, are statistically less likely to text while driving or talk while driving. According to Pew Research, there also is no correlation between parents who monitor their kids and those who do not, and the likelihood of a teen receiving inappropriate messages.

What does play a factor is that kids who have parents who frequently communicate with them about their cell phone usage and the dangers of spam and inappropriate or sexually explicit content are much more likely to report those activities when they occur.

Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and Harvard, discovered in her interviews of teenagers that teens actively try to avoid “paternalistic adults who use safety and protection as an excuse to monitor their everyday sociality.” Instead of creating a more engaging relationship with their teenagers, many parents, especially those of teenage girls, push them farther away and encourage behavior such as hiding or masking cell phone and online activity. Not surprisingly, a 2012 McAfee study revealed that 70% of teens hide their online behavior from their parents.

So what does this really come down to?

Trust and communication.

In hundreds of interviews and polls, like the one conducted on Debate.org which is highly anecdotal, teens believe that a lack of trust, listening and communication from parents, coupled with increased spying, surveillance or monitoring of their daily activities, leads to break-downs in relationships and increased resentment. Teens often communicate less with their parents, because in many cases they find the watchful eyes to be unwarranted and intrusive.

Family therapists and psychologists often support teens in these cases noting that it is important to allow teenagers to grow independently. Adding responsibility to a teenager allows them to develop confidence and trust in themselves, while simultaneously developing greater trust from the parent.

While Stacy’s mother may believe she is acting in her daughter’s best interests, I know from listening to car ride conversations that damage to their relationship has been done. Stacy does not trust her mother, and is growing increasingly frustrated with the strict rules and her tendency to take things out of context and escalate simple issues into major confrontations. This frustration can and will cause problems in the future, and already makes Stacy less likely to communicate with her mother about what’s bothering her and thestress she experiences in school.

So, when it comes to monitoring teen cell phone use: What is right? What is too much? The answer to those questions really comes down to the kind of relationship you want to have with your child. Do you want a conversational one based on trust, or do you want a more adversarial one?

One of the most difficult concepts for us parents to grasp is the notion that our teenagers should have an expectation of privacy and trust. We must juxtapose the expectations of our children and their need to grow through adolescence into adulthood with the real dangers.

If we take a few steps back from intense intrusion, and establish more human, one-on-one channels of communication with our teens, we will have stronger relationships in the long run and will help our kids become the smart young adults we want them to be.

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