One day after school, 16-year-old Amelia was in her room scrolling through her Facebook updates when she took a break to get a snack. When she came back, her mom was at her computer, busy reading the status updates posted by Amelia's friends, which alluded to "gossip about who got drunk last weekend and who likes who, stuff like that," Amelia remembered. "It was nothing, most of it probably wasn't even true—everyone exaggerates about everything—but my mom totally flipped out." Amelia, meanwhile, "flipped out" too, accusing her mother of spying, and having no respect for her privacy.
Parents have nosed around in their kids' lives ever since the invention of the telephone, but these days, technology has taken the spying game to an entirely new level with multiple points of entry, from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram, Vine and Tumblr. While communicating via social media has made it easier for kids to stay connected with their friends, these largely public forums (and traceable activities) also give parents a new in to what their children may not be telling them. A study published earlier this year by the Education Database Online found that nearly half of all parents using Facebook joined the social network with the primary purpose of spying on their kids (and their kids' friends). All but 7 percent of those parents check their child's profile every single day, monitoring status updates, location check-ins and photos their kids post and are tagged in.
Many parents say they do this monitoring simply for their teen's own good. "Amelia can be impulsive, like all teens," Amelia's mom, Gina, told me. "And all it takes is one thoughtless tweet or provocative photo to get you a reputation. I don't want someone to Google her name and have the first thing come up be some half-grammatically correct rant about where her algebra teacher could shove it, even if she thinks she's just being funny. It's not appropriate." And given the fact that most teens have a shallow internet presence, their social media posts do often comprise much of their online identities, making what they post even more significant than that posted by adults, whose social media accounts are more likely to get buried. Which is why, in many ways, Gina has a point. After all, many teens don't consider the permanence, or the public nature, of their social media posts, often blindly sharing information and photos they wouldn't want their parents to see. And people—their parents, yes, but others, too—are taking notice. Philadelphia police arrested a 17-year-old accused of using Twitter and Instagram to instigate potential witnesses to violent crimes, while a New York Times story shared the unsurprising news that college admissions officers are reading applicants' Facebook posts and tweets (and often rejecting them as a result). At the same time, the Internet doesn't do much to protect teens' privacy; with social media sites changing their rules so often it can be difficult to keep up. For example, Facebook changed its privacy rules for teens. Now, unless they specifically opt out, their status updates, videos and images can now be seen by anyone—no longer just their friends or friends of friends—raising the stakes considerably.
And yet the answer isn't for parents to be poised to erase their child's every online misstep. There's a real danger in too closely monitoring, or even limiting, teens' online behavior. The fact is that social media is, now, a very real way of life, and to shield kids from that is to leave them underprepared for a time when their parents aren't there to protect them. It's like operating a car: There's a period during which young drivers are required to drive with an adult. But that period ends, and then the kids are on their own.
Social media freedom teaches kids an important lesson in how not to behave. What not to share. It teaches them that public is public, and some mistakes can't be erased. That's a hard, but necessary, lesson for people to learn. And it won't happen with mom and dad looking over their shoulders, or at their browser history when no one's looking. Letting kids control their own online presence is also a valuable lesson in accountability. Social media takes much of the fall for teens' bad behavior, from enabling after-school bullying to providing a forum for inappropriate photos. But by blaming social media for kids' mistakes, we absolve kids from certain responsibility that is theirs and theirs alone. Teens will make bad decisions both online and off, but they make the decisions. Simply put, when social media exposes a child's bad behavior, it's not the fault of social media.
Which is why the best policy is to give kids their privacy, but to also make sure they're very clear about the public nature of social media and the possible implications of potentially regrettable online behavior. Ask them to be honest with you, and be honest and upfront with them in return. Realize that going behind their backs to determine what they're up to may only push them towards greater secrecy. 15-year-old Noelle was recently confronted by her parents about Twitter interactions she'd been having with a group of kids they disliked. She later learned they'd also been reading her emails and Facebook chats. "I was grounded for a week, and forbidden to hang out with those kids," Noelle remembered. "Of course, it didn't stop me from hanging out with them; I just learned to lie better."
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com