Snooping on your kid’s digital devices — Good Parenting


Boy Cell phoneDear Dr. Debbie,

My husband and I are debating whether to monitor what our soon-to-be 15-year-old does on his laptop and phone. I accidentally came across his sharing of sexual content with a female classmate which stunned me. I imagine a confrontation would result in him claiming we’ve invaded his privacy while we argue that improper use of devices — which we pay for — can result in a loss of privileges. I’m feeling angry, disappointed, afraid and protective.

But mostly,


Don’t miss last week’s column The benefit of friends of different ages — Good Parenting

Dear Guilty,

One of the good arguments for parental snooping is that teen surveillance was once effectively done by neighbors. In the bygone era of everyone knowing everyone and everyone’s business, a watchful eye would quickly result in the reporting of teenage shenanigans to one’s parents. Yesteryear’s youth may have behaved better knowing that potentially embarrassing behavior would soon be known at home.

Today’s teens use technology to flirt, pressure and potentially cause harm. And because of the serious risks facing teens today, from STDs, to drug abuse, to suicide from online bullying, parents are obligated not only to pay attention, but to have conversations about these life and death issues. According to research gathered by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health, teens really do listen to what their parents say about sexuality and responsibility. You have a powerful influence over your teen’s behavior.

But you have to exercise it. Fortunately, technology is keeping pace with parents’ needs to know what their tweens and teens are up to
 so you will know which topics need to be addressed. Consider the latest monitoring apps as essential as the safety features on your car. If you think how long it took from the introduction of mass produced cars in 1908 until seat belts were added in 1949, finally becoming standard in 1964, then were required to be used in 1984, we are still in the “how does this work?” phase of keeping our children safe with digital devices.

Sexting is more than a seductive phone call. The images can easily be shared with unintended eyes. Phishing emails and SMiShing texts can put your data, your machines, or your child at risk of harm from cyber criminals. Sometimes social media users find they are their own worst enemy when regrettable photos or rants interfere with college acceptance or getting a job. Online images of momentary stupidity can last forever.

Rather than a confrontation, start with regular check-ins with your son. Conversation can be had in the car, at the table and whenever you’re together. Beyond “How was your day?” try to hit a variety of topics that get him past grunting.

Here are a few suggestions for conversation starters from psychologist Dr. Kristi Wolfe ranging from “What makes a good friend?” to “What do you think I like most about you?” Prepare yourself with a few questions each day to throw out at the right moment. If he comments that someone is or isn’t a good friend, ask him to tell you why. Then work in your concerns about the challenges and risks he may be facing in his life — at school, with friends or with relationships. Toss in some anecdotes about your younger self, including some decisions you regret and some which have paid off. Help him start to picture the life he wants to have for himself in a few years so he can successfully work his way there.

If your monitoring and conversations lead you to doubt your son’s responsible use of his devices, then by all means, limit his access. Consider it shaping his behavior. Before he could safely cross a street on his own, you probably made sure he never had the opportunity to fail at it. Likewise, if he does not yet possess the self-protective abilities to interact with the internet and other teens through his devices, then you need to guide him with these critical skills before letting him wander off by himself.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]