Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Keeping tabs on teens and tweens in the digital age

Delaware Public Media

Kids are getting phones at a younger age these days, and using them and other devices to live an increasingly digital life.

That leaves parents with a dilemma: How can they make sure their children live that digital life safely and responsibly?  And where does the line fall between keeping tabs on your kid and invading their privacy?

We asked contributor Eileen Dallabrida to delve into this issue.

Midway through sixth grade, Kristen Norton’s daughter Emma asked for a phone.

Norton, an educational diagnostician in the Red Clay School District, and her husband John, a special education teacher at McKean High School, were apprehensive about giving their daughter unlimited access to the internet, social media and conversations with friends—or people posing as friends.

So, they set down some rules.

“Prior to getting the phone, she had to sign a contract agreeing to the rules,” Norton recalls.

Studies conclude that vast majority of parents are proactive in encouraging their kids to use their phones, tablets and computers responsibly. In a survey by the Pew Research Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank, 94 percent of parents with teens say they have had conversations about what is acceptable and unacceptable to share online. Forty percent keep the lines of communication open with frequent dialogue.

“When I’m out with other moms, this conversation comes up at least once,” Norton says. “You have to be vigilant.”

Today, Emma is 14 and in ninth grade. She recently lost her phone privileges temporarily, the consequence of letting her grades slip. The Nortons are in step with 65 percent of parents in the Pew study, who digitally ground kids for breaking household rules or not holding up their end of the bargain in earning phone time.

When Emma and her 12-year-old sister Leah are using their phones, they are free to communicate with friends through talk, text and Instagram, a social media network where members share photos and videos. Their mom has access to their accounts.

Norton gets an alert each time one of her girls posts on Instagram. She monitors their accounts daily. Her antennae went up about three years ago when Emma was in 6th grade and began communicating with a new friend, a 13-year-old girl she met online.

“I looked at the call log on her phone and didn’t recognize the number,” she recalls. “I don’t know this kid. Who is this person calling?”

Norton looked at the new friend’s Instagram account, and then tracked down the user’s Facebook page. She was stunned to discover the user was a 35-year-old man who was impersonating a young girl.

She blocked him from contacting her daughter and had a long conversation with the girls about internet safety. She also reported him to the National Exploited Children site.

Leah Orchinik, a pediatric psychologist in the Division of Behavioral Health at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, says parents need to be diligent about providing input and guidance about what their children are viewing and reading.

“Parents should have a sense of what sites their kids are looking at and what is the content on those sites,” she says. “It’s their job to keep kids safe.”

While nearly all moms and dads talk to kids about online behavior, far fewer actually monitor their children’s activities. The Pew study says:

  • 61 percent of parents say they have checked which websites their teens visit
  • 60 percent have read their teens profiles on social media accounts
  • 56 percent have friended or followed their kids on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or other social media channel
  • 48 percent have read their teens’ text messages or phone call logs

Orchinik notes that social media is a public platform. And moms and dads should take a look at what teens’ have to share.
“We encourage monitoring of social media,” she says. “Parents should check in on what their kids are posting.”

That said, keeping tabs on the kids is a slippery slope. What parents perceive as monitoring, teens might see as snooping.

Find A Friend, Glympse, Maverick and other tracking apps allow users to locate their connections. While kids might appreciate the apps in meeting their friends, they might chafe at their parents knowing their whereabouts and counter with such tactics as ditching the phone at a friend’s house before continuing to their actual destination.

That’s why it’s important for parents who are tracking their teens to let them know their location is being monitored, as well as the reasons they are being tracked, Orchinik says.

“We know from research that when teens feel like they are being spied on there’s a higher level of conflict at home,” she says. “Kids are also very good at finding ways around being spied on.”

She suggests parents and kids have a frank and open conversation about building trust. If a teen lies about his whereabouts or otherwise misbehaves, parents might use tracking to make sure their teen is safe and living up to his word. Just be sure to let the kid in on it.

“Parents are worried and need reassurance that their kids are doing OK. Say, ‘to keep you safe, we are going to track where you are,’” she says. “Technology also provides an opportunity for kids to take responsibility, perhaps texting to say they arrived safely.”

At the Norton’s home in Claymont, tracking goes both ways. The girls know when mom is heading home from work. She knows when they are getting off the school bus.

Orchinik says younger teens and kids with specific needs, such as Type 1 diabetes or other chronic illnesses, often find comfort in knowing mom and dad are aware of their whereabouts.

“For some families, it’s a huge advantage having that sort of technology,” she says.

All families can benefit from establishing boundaries and expectations.

The Nortons’ rules include when and where the sisters can use their phones. There are no phones at the dinner table. There’s no talking, texting or social media use an hour before bedtime. At night, the phones go in Mom and Dad’s room.

Currently, Instagram is the only social media permitted. (The Nortons have their daughters’ usernames and passwords.) SnapChat, a platform in which messages disappear seconds after they are posted, is forbidden.

They girls aren’t old enough to drive. But when they are, the Nortons will consider an app that tracks where users drive—and how fast they are traveling.

“I will use any app that lets me know that my daughter is safe,” Norton says.


Not sure how to establish guidelines for kids using smartphones and other devices? Here are some suggestions.

  • It’s important to talk about using technology responsibly. But once is not enough. “It’s not a one-time conversation,” says Leah Orchinik, a pediatric psychologist in the Division of Behavioral Health at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. “It’s something that needs to be updated when a teen gets a driver’s license or starts a romantic relationship.”

  • Establish a contract. Spell out what behaviors you expect from kids in return for the privilege of having a phone. Outline specific consequences for misuse of the phone and other troublesome behaviors, such lying or a drop in grades.

  • Don’t allow kids to keep phones in their rooms overnight. There’s some evidence that the blue light emitted by phones contributes to insomnia. Late night conversations and texting definitely are a deterrent to sleep.

  • Be honest with your child if you are monitoring their internet use, text messages, social media or location. Share your feelings and concerns with them, Orchinik advices. “I was worried. I hopped on the app and you weren’t where you said you would be. What happened? That opens the door for the teen to be honest.”

  • Set a good example. Parents who are glued to their phones create a model for their kids to emulate. Put away the phone while driving and at meal time. Insist kids do the same.

  • Set up online firewalls to restrict access to illicit content. Monitor your child’s internet use and vet social media channels before you allow your kids to have accounts.

  • Consider going low tech. Simple flip phones allow the user to call or text but don’t provide access to the internet. Permit your child to go online in a supervised setting, logging on to a tablet or computer at home or at school.

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.