Cyber-Spying on Your Teen - How Bad?

Filed under: Opinions

teen with computer
This column explores the parenting crimes most parents commit now and again, and asks the question: How Bad?

There's been much in the news about teen "sexting" and tween Twittering lately, which reminds me of when I was visiting with some friends who have teens, and a concerned mom confessed that she cyber-spied on her 14-year-old son and found out that 1) he was having slightly more advanced conversations about girls than she expected and 2) there was some occasional drug and alcohol experimentation going on.

"If I hadn't spied on him, I'd never have known," she said. She spoke to him about both of these issues and felt she was able to help him form some new opinions. But some other friends (with younger kids) were aghast that she had breached her son's trust, to which Mom-of-Teen pointed out A) that her son had not and would not find out about the spying and B) "My house, my computer" and then, a while later, C) Well, "How bad?"

I called my friend Linda Perlstein who is the author of a bestselling book called Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers. "How bad is cyber spying on your teen?" she asked. "How exactly was she spying?"
"Because Facebook isn't private, it's published, so if that's what the mom was looking at, her son has no grounds to say, 'Mommy can't see it.'" It was my impression that she was pulling up his chat history and reading it, I told Linda.

"That's more like eavesdropping on a conversation," Linda said. "Even though it's sort of wrong, I give moms some slack here because they are responsible for their kids' well being. I know my opinion is not a popular one and some people put a very high value on children's privacy but I don't."

But what about trust? Won't the son find out eventually and feel that a sacred trust has been broken? Linda says the key factor in the decision to spy or not to spy is to ask yourself why you are spying. Here are points she suggests you keep in mind:

Ask yourself: Why do I want to spy? If you have worries about your child, says Perlstein, "Doing research that you need to do to keep him safe is fair game. If you have concerns about what your kid might be getting into, trusting them and thinking they would never lie to you is delusional. I know lots of teenagers who have great relationships with their parents and whose parents think they tell them everything and none of them do. I don't really have a problem with this kind of spying, I think that's okay. If you're so worried about pissing your kid off or breaking the trust you miss an opportunity to find out something you really need to know."

However, if you're just nosy... "I don't think it's criminal parenting parenting to be curious, but I think you should ask yourself do you need to be involved in all of the innermost thoughts of your kids -- do you need to know everything about them? And if so, can you find up front ways to do that, because there are definitely reasons not to spy." There's that old trust issue, and also if a child finds out you are spying, he will become ever more sneaky about his activities.

Don't fess up. "Like with any guilty situation, when you fess up to make yourself feel better, it can be a very selfish act." If you need to address issues with your child that you found out about by spying, says Perlstein, "do it in a roundabout way -- besides you won't get very far by announcing that you found out about this issue online and you're furious about it."

Restrain yourself. While working on a book about teens and sex, I met several moms who confessed that they started spying on their kids by reading their IM history, and got kind of "addicted" to reading about their child's lives, like it was a soap opera that they didn't want to give up. How can a child feel safe having his own thoughts if he's constantly being spied on? "It's a slippery slope," Perlstein agrees. "That's why you have to really ask yourself why you're doing it and show some restraint and judgement -- your child deserves that."

So, answer the question: How Bad is it to cyber-spy on your teenager? "This is a 2 if it's an isolated incident and you were curious or worried and had cause to take a look. If you're addicted to your kids happenings and you spy on them all the time, that's a 7 or an 8. Then the problem is not your child, it's you."

Do you have a story about cyber-spying to share? Comment below! Or send your How Bad question to

Sabrina Weill is the editor-in-chief of

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.