Should I Stalk My Teen on Facebook?

It’s one of the questions that will define this generation of parents – “Should I friend my teen on Facebook?”

This is a defining question as it encapsulates the most significant shift in parenting for a couple of generations.  The difference between parenting kids in the in the age of digital and mobile technologies compared to electronic analogue age cannot be underestimated.  As parents we are trying to guide our kids through an upbringing filled with challenges and opportunities we never had to face.  We have no models or experience on which to base our assumptions or actions. Nor do we understand how growing up immersed in such a hyper connected and networked world will shape those in their formative years.

When it comes to the rules for how to parent kids in the digital realm our generation is feeling its way.

Parents Spying on Facebook

This is why I find any research like that released last week by AVG so interesting.  Studies like this provide a glimpse not only into the emerging practices of parents, but also the dominant thinking behind how people are responding to the challenges digital and mobile technology present. So this post is a quick snapshot of the results along with the questions it raises for me.  Feel free to add your own thoughts, questions, or answers in the comments below.

According to a survey by AVG over 60% of parents in the US spy on their kids social networking accounts.  Spying in this context is looking at their children’s accounts without their knowledge.

The survey of over 4400 parents from 11 countries found that mothers (49%) are more likely to take a sneaky peak than fathers (39%) at their teen’s online interactions.  It also found that Spanish (61%) and Italian (54%)parents were more prone to such clandestine activities than those from Australia (41%), France (33%) and Japanese parents really don’t seem interested at all (10%).

In light of the studies findings AVG’s Tony Anscombe posed the question “Is it spying or is it good parenting when parents closely monitor teens’ online activity?” He added “Parenting teens that have grown up alongside the Internet and with mobile phones in hand requires an entirely new set of rules and tactics.”

Sure there needs to be new rules, but what exactly are the rules?  How are these new parenting paradigms determined? Does fear of the worst possible outcome justify a blurring of boundary definitions?

Of the parents surveyed, 21% of American, 22% of Australian, and 23% of British parents suspected their kids of “sexting” or sending sexually explicit text messages.  Contrast this to research amongst teenagers late last year which reported only 2.5% of teenagers had appeared in, or created nude or nearly nude digital images. The research conducted by Pew Research found that the number dropped to only 1% when images were regarded as explicit (naked breasts, genitals).

In the AVG survey 20% of US and 25% of Australian parents reported seeing explicit or abusive content on their kids profiles or feeds, and the vast majority of parents reported their teenagers behaved well online.

Questions of Parenting Style

Michael McKinnon, Security Advisor at AVG was reported in the media as saying, “AVG’s latest research encourages us to consider whether Facebook and other social networking sites are creating a new kind of parental relationship, or whether we are in effect spying on our teens? These sites are providing parents with new methods to monitor what their kids are doing without necessarily having to be ‘heavy handed’ or to quiz their child directly.”

Reading your child’s diary isn’t heavy handed either, but does the immediate impact of an activity determine its validity?

It is all good and well to speak of defining a new form of relationship but relationships are reciprocal. A survey last year by Kaplan Test Prep of over 2300 teenagers found that 35% of teens rejected or ignored their parent’s friend request on Facebook.

I wonder what percentage of our generation would have wanted parents listening to our phone calls or reading our mail? Obviously there is a difference between private and public communication, and the relative risks associated with each. However I am not sure that as parents we have really grasped how the social spaces in our children’s lives have changed from when we were teenagers.  I suspect that in the absence of understanding fear and curiosity become the prime drivers of behaviour.

When is the point that parents should detach themselves from the giant electronic umbilical chord that new technology is nurturing?  Parents can monitor their teen’s online activity, call them at any time and expect them to respond thanks to mobile phones, and even track their physical movements via GPS equipped phones.  No matter where teenagers are their parents now have the opportunity of virtually keep tabs.

What does this mean for developing autonomy, independence and identity?

There are real risks for kids growing up in such an instant and connected digital environment.  Most of those risks are related to self-inflicted reputation damage and online victimisation from peers. Adults need to work with young people to help reduce these risks and develop a sound understanding of digital citizenship and how to live online. Yet in our rush to keep kids safe from inappropriate disclosure and stranger danger and many parents may be creating new new risks.

What are the risks posed  to parent-teen relationships by secretive surveillance? How much parenting attention is being given to preparing teens to live in an online world compared to protecting them from the online world?

Continuing the Conversation

I am not advocating a position one way or another when it comes to parental monitoring of social networks, (although I think spying on kids is loaded with potential risks). I am really interested to know how this will all work it self out.  What will be the accepted parenting norms of the future?

How do we find the balance between keeping a watchful eye on our kids, but letting them gradually fly further from the nest and make their own way?

What are the implications of lurking in our older children’s social spaces?

What are the opportunities to improve the relationship of teenagers with their parents that digital technology offers?

How much does fear derived from not understanding impact parental responses to their teenager’s online activities?

I would really value your thoughts on the matter. Have you made a decision on this topic in relation to your kids?  How have you sort to resolve the tensions?  Do you have another perspective that adds more light on the issue?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Alternatively if you would like to send me an email about your experiences or thoughts I would be greatly appreciate it

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Showing 2 comments
  • Hall88

    I have been struggling with this very topic.  I have a 16 yr old daughter, a 13 year old daughter, and a 9 year old son. I am very fortunate in that my kids are generally well behaved, and I don’t suspect any serious issues like drugs, or sneaking out at night. 
    Here is where I’ve settled for now:

    – My kids are allowed to get a Facebook account when they are 13, as long as they friend me (an arbitrary choice on my part, but it seems in keeping with most of their peers).
    – Every once in a while, I go on my Facebook account (I am not an avid user myself) and look at their wall and pictures.  I am especially inclined to do so when I have a reason to think that there might be something going on in their lives that will be reflected in their accounts.
    -I do not post to their accounts or do anything that might embarrass them.

    My logic is this:  Their Facebook accounts are fairly public – open to the large number of people who are their “friends”.  I have told them I will look at their accounts on occasion, so I am honest and up front about it.  (as opposed to looking at their diary – which I would never do, as much as I wish I could).  I have explained that  their accounts may be seen by all sorts of people, including their teachers and future employers.  My implicit message is also they shouldn’t they shouldn’t put stuff on their account that they wouldn’t want their mother to see.

    I also look at their friends’ pages on occasion, to get a handle on who they like and spend time with, especially when I haven’t had chance to meet or get to know them in person.  My oldest daughter considers this “stalking” on my part, and is mortified if I ever mention something I noticed by doing this.  I admit it feels awkward to do.  It does feel like snooping somehow.  But I can not come up with a logical argument against it. People who have not put in privacy protections are putting information out there in a public manner, and therefore it should not be considered “stalking” to look at it.  

    So far I have found Facebook to be a useful tool for me to help me understand what is happening in my kids’ lives. I continue to try to figure out what is right and ethical in this new area of communication.


  • chris_ut

    Thanks Melanie for sharing how you manage this issue. You make some really good points!

    Sounds to me like you have a pretty considered approach regarding your kids and Facebook.  Letting your kids know up front that you are going to be looking in on their pages occasionally I think is very different to covertly accessing their page.  A big part of the issue is trust, and if  you are doing what you told your kids you are going to do then that does nothing to harm the trust relationship.

    Your logic regarding Facebook as a public space is also a really important issue to highlight. This is where it can be tricky for people to understand how Facebook is being used in terms of relationships.  Most people, including teens, have their Facebook settings reasonably public. When this is the case then why should parents be excluded from what the rest of the world can view?  And not posting stuff you wouldn’t want your mother to know is a pretty good rule of thumb on these type of accounts.

    Why teenagers have such public profiles is the bigger issue that i think parents need grapple with.  Setting digital boundaries and raising digital citizens should include teaching our kids about limits of self-disclosure and appropriate levels of public exposure.

    Facebook can be set to being a pretty private closed network.  To my mind restricting the visibility of accounts is an under used strategy for helping kids relate on Facebook.  When it is used as a more private and intimate way for keeping up with close friends  then I think parents have less need or justification for being involved.

    Seeing Facebook as tool to keep up with what is happening in your kids lives is a constructive outlook to have on technology and parenting,  This is a much healthier place to start from than fear and suspicion.

    Thanks for helping all of us work out what is the best way forward.


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