Parental control: Monitoring middle schoolers' online activity

Knowing what your kids are up to online can help instill rules and limits around tech and social media use, experts say.

 

Kate Vlasak has a pretty good sense of what her 6th grader son is doing online, whether it's watching videos of the gnarliest hockey saves or posting to his new Instagram account. That’s because she not only asks him often about what he’s doing on a device, she also — with his knowledge — monitors his Instagram activity. 

“His account is linked with mine and he uses my phone,” says the mother of 2. “I look to see who he’s following, and I check his requests and the direct messages he and his friends are sending each other.”

Monitoring — and sometimes restricting — middle schoolers' online activity, especially on social media channels, has become a common activity for many parents. In fact, 77% of parents report they at least try to track their children’s social media use, according to a joint study from University of Texas-Dallas and CNN.

But to what end? Is this just snooping for snooping’s sake? Not at all, experts note. Knowing what your kids are up to online can help instill rules and limits around tech and social media use for early teens. And that can help lay the foundation for healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

“Just like parents want to have a sense of who their children are hanging out with … parents should also have a sense of what their kids are doing online too.”

Janell Burley Hofmann

Author and founder of "slow tech" movement

 

The whole picture

As kids grow up, their personal interests and social lives begin to flourish — not only in real life, but also online. Pre-teens average more than 4 1/2 hours per day on screen media, and for teens, that figure jumps to 6 1/2 hours, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media.

“Just like parents want to have a sense of who their children are hanging out with and what they’re doing when they’re away from screens, parents should also have a sense of what their kids are doing online too,” says Janell Burley Hofmann, author of iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up, and founder of the “slow tech” movement.

Getting a handle on a child’s online life starts with simply asking them good questions. Hofmann suggests that parents learn more about what games their kids are playing or what videos they’re watching. Ask who they’re gaming with, what friends are involved in a big group text and who they follow on Instagram. 

“One thing to remember is that while our middle schoolers may seem tech-savvy, they are still beginners. They need us.”

Janell Burley Hofmann

Author and founder of "slow tech" movement

 

Vlasak notes that with her 12-year-old son, these inquiries often lead to helpful conversations about online behavior, and even what to do when he comes across inappropriate content or things that make him uncomfortable. “I ask him a lot of questions, and I know he understands my philosophy, which is that he should quickly move past things that are too violent or mature,” she says. 

How much is enough?

As with all things parenting, the younger your children are, the more involved parents need to be. The same goes for monitoring budding teens' online activity. “One thing to remember is that while our middle schoolers may seem tech-savvy, they are still beginners. They need us,” Hofmann says.

She advises that parents first create a working set of expectations, as well as rules and boundaries — knowing that these can change as their child grows and matures. The rules will vary depending on individual family values, and kids’ behaviors and needs. However, 2/3 of parents report that they limit or prohibit their 13-year-olds' social media use, 54% limit the amount of time their teens spend online, and 40% do some sort of surveillance, such as knowing their children’s account passwords or following their friends online.  

When it comes to actual monitoring, there are numerous apps, software solutions and even Wi-Fi routers that can help. Some of the most common tools implement automatic time limits, monitor text messages, filter content, review social media posts and more. Hofmann particularly likes OurPact, VISR and Torch. 

Still, there’s a difference between simply knowing what your child is doing and using their activity as a jumping-off point for more education. Vlasak notes that in the first months of watching her son’s Instagram account, he received multiple inappropriate messages from strangers. His peers also made online comments that poked fun at people’s looks and created posts that ranked classmates by popularity or appearance. “We end up addressing things as they come along,” she says.

Mistakes will be made

Parents are monitoring their kids' online and social media use often with the broad goal of helping them avoid negative experiences. But they're not always successful. The UT Dallas-CNN study reports that parents of middle schoolers “systematically underestimated how much negative emotion and problematic behavior their children were experiencing,” even when they felt aware of their kids’ online lives.

Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, says more than constant monitoring, kids need a trusted parent or adult who they can turn to for advice and support, especially when it comes to digital drama. “It’s important that kids know that they can come to us, even if they’ve made mistakes,” she says. 

Parents may not be able to shield their teens from everything, but they can help them learn to fix online problems. For example, they might advise on how to address a friend whose feelings they’ve hurt, to delete an image they regret posting, or why it’s important to respect people’s privacy by not texting them late at night. 

The bottom line: Monitoring your child’s online activity can go hand in hand with teaching good digital habits. Hofmann notes that it's also about opening up lines of communication and establishing trust between you and your child.

“If we think about the digital world like we think about any other aspect of a child growing up or parenting, then we step into a place of confidence and empowerment,” she says.

 

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