Megan Brannan admits that she used to be the prototypical “overbearing” mom.
Every night, she would check the phone of her 14-year-old son, Calvin, to see what he’d been doing and with whom he’d been talking. She’d scroll through his Instagram and Snapchat feeds, then do a deep dive into his web browsing history.
One day, she reached her limit. Not for his sake, so much, as for hers.
“I was really, really involved for a while,” said Brannan, of Minneapolis. “I decided if I was going to monitor it all the time I would go crazy. I had to back off.”
The constant checks exposed her to a barrage of information that fell into the “TMI” category.
“I thought about the things I said to my friends when I was his age and wondered: ‘Would I have wanted my mother to read through it all?’ ” she said.
Parenting in the digital age is fraught with challenges. Chief among them: determining if there’s a point where monitoring your kids’ virtual lives crosses the line into invading their privacy.
“Certainly parents are in a very tough spot,” said Mary Madden, a researcher with Data & Society, a New York-based nonprofit research group. “They have both an obligation and a responsibility to be aware of their children’s online activities to a certain extent, and to protect them from the risks they may face online.”
A majority of parents say they monitor their teenagers’ digital lives in some fashion, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey of parents of 13- to 17-year-olds. About 60 percent check the websites that their teens visit, and 60 percent monitor their child’s social media accounts.
In addition, 48 percent review their teens’ phone calls and text messages, the study found.
Rapid changes in technology, including the advent of the smartphone and evolving social media platforms, fuel parents’ fears about what is happening in their kids’ lives outside of parental view.
“It’s all so new. I think it’s scaring the bejeezus out of parents,” said Susan Walker, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who teaches a class on families and technology.
Added Madden: “For a long time, the conventional wisdom was simply to make sure your computer was in a shared space of the home.” Nowadays, when kids can be sitting on the couch just a few inches from their parents but be immersed in another world on their phones, the concept of shared space being safe space “seems so quaint,” she said.
“You practically cannot separate and isolate your children from the many mobile devices connected to the internet,” Madden said.
Following parental instincts
The urge to constantly peer into kids’ virtual lives stems from a natural protective instinct.
“A lot of time that’s born out of some sort of fear that we have as parents that if I don’t do this, my kid is going to end up this way. My kid is going to be bullied or fall off that bike,” Walker said. “It’s a good instinct. But at the same time, we can overprotect them to the point where we limit their own sense of agency.”
There is reason for concern, of course.
Cyberbullying and exposure to lewd and other inappropriate messages and images online are common worries for parents. The Pew Research Center reports that 15 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds with a cellphone say they have received nude or seminude images of someone they know via text message.
Often, there’s a disconnect between parents and teens about the possible ramifications of their online behavior.
An impulsive post or comment may come back to haunt a youngster later in life when they’re looking for a job or applying to college.
“Everything they do and say is captured forever,” said Brannan, who has tried to impress that on her son. “I sometimes still wonder if he really grasps that.”
One of her rules for Calvin is that he has to allow her to be a friend or follower for his social media accounts.
And as she’s eased up on the amount of time she spends monitoring his digital life, she’s stepped up her efforts to directly engage her son in conversations about what he and his friends are saying online about current events and issues.
“Instead of me being the obnoxious police mom, I think we talk about things more now,” she said.
Making kids aware
Hannah Ross of Minneapolis doesn’t believe she’s breaking any boundaries by following the digital footsteps of her stepdaughter, Ali.
Ross and her husband, along with Ali’s mom, have set policies that include limiting her screen time to one hour on school days and three hours on weekend days. They also do spot checks of Ali’s phone and computer, reviewing her messages and Pinterest and Instagram accounts.
Ross is hoping that by letting Ali know that she could be checked at any time, there will be nothing to police.
“We’re not looking to catch every interaction that might feel suspect or inappropriate to us as parents,” Ross said. “The point is to teach her to be cautious in her digital footprint and to really think twice about what she’s putting out there.”
How do teenagers like Ali feel about having their online lives monitored by their families?
“She doesn’t love it,” Ross said, but “all and all, she’s been respectful about following the guidelines we’ve had in place.”
Besides, she added: “Having your parent as an audience is not a bad thing.”