a mom looks closely at a phone


Here’s what I realized when I digitally spied on my daughter

Jun 15, 2020

Confession: I haven’t spent this much time with my 13-year-old since she was a toddler.

I mean, we haven’t hung out like this since before she went to daycare when she was still in diapers. For the last three quarantined months, every waking minute of every waking hour of every waking day has been spent with my kid. It's been the most amazing, stressful, eye-opening, exhausting, best time ever.

But finally, after a long stretch of lockdown, my daughter went out on a social distance walk with a friend.

Laura Mullin created an 'Instacontract' for her daughter — read about how that turned out here.

A New-But-Old Adventure

I was elated to see her go venture off into the world, connect with someone her own age and regain a sense of normalcy. But soon after she was gone, a creeping sense of unease started to take over my brain. That old feeling emerged of wondering where my daughter is, who she’s with and if she’s safe. I have enjoyed a bit of a reprieve from that stress. However, I believe it’s a sensation I’ll have to get used to again when she makes the giant leap this fall to — gulp — high school.

Soon I’ll be facing the nagging question yet again: Is it OK to digitally spy on my teen?

A Parent's Dilemma

It’s a conundrum that I’ve struggled with since my daughter got her first phone in Grade 6. I gave her my old one to call if she got lost coming home from school (she did) or heading to her numerous extracurricular activities. I was torn about opening up that cellular can of worms, but considering that we live in downtown Toronto, it gave me peace of mind.

As parents of older kids know, phones ultimately become a huge part of an adolescent’s universe. Like it or not, kids become fused to their cells. It’s their social universe and preferred channel to connect and interact with the larger world.

"In other words, I felt I had to be 'Big Mother.'" 

I felt the best way to manage the phone situation was to try and control it by setting some ground rules. I decided to come up with guidelines about when and for how long she could access it. And initially, she was barely on it! But then social media reared its ugly head.

Despite a hard-bargained social media contract providing rules and the best guidance I could think of, TikTok led to Instagram led to Snapchat led to Houseparty. These are just some of the platforms that kids are connecting on. I learned that they are difficult for a parent to control and monitor. Chances are if a kid of a certain age has access to the internet, they’re probably on at least one of these social platforms, whether their parents gave their blessing or not.

How I Tried to Keep My Kid Safe 

So how does a parent keep their kid safe on social channels? How does one prevent them from getting lured by someone posing as another kid or falling victim to online trolls or the mind-boggling myriad of other bad things that happen online?     

I felt as a parent it was my job to track down my child’s digital footprint to see for myself what her virtual world looked like. I needed to know if she really knew the people who were following, texting or messaging her. To me, it was my responsibility to monitor her online social life to ensure her safety. After all, she is at the age when she doesn’t yet possess the knowledge, skills or experience to navigate the serious pitfalls that she could encounter. In other words, I felt I had to be “Big Mother.”

"Now I was the one under scrutiny and I didn’t like that she felt betrayed by me."

So... when she was asleep or when she left her phone alone I became an undercover detective. Like a character in a noir film, I would slink around the halls of our home, tiptoe over to her phone and covertly take a look. I checked her texts to see who she was communicating with; I logged onto her Instagram accounts to see who was messaging her; and I looked at her pics to see what she and her friends were up to. Suddenly I had an all-access pass to her secret preteen world, complete with all its thrills and heartbreaks and beefs. I felt I truly understood what my kid was all about.

I also felt like a terrible parent who was intruding on my child’s privacy.

Did I have the right to do this?

Did I have the right to look at her personal communications even if it was in an effort to keep her safe? Did I trust her to make the right decisions when it comes to managing her online world? I didn’t have to think about it for long because I soon blew my cover. One day I accidentally let it slip that I knew something that had happened to her that she hadn’t told me — whoops. She’d caught me red-handed.

Suddenly, the issue of trust flipped. Now I was the one under scrutiny and I didn’t like that she felt betrayed by me. Our relationship needs to be built on mutual respect and honesty. I couldn’t ask her to be forthright with me if I was being sneaky with her. Even if my actions came with the best intentions.

It's Your Choice

So it is OK to digitally spy on your kid? That is a difficult choice every parent has to make. I’ve come to the conclusion that, for me, it’s not OK. Instead, I try to have an ongoing dialogue about what’s appropriate to post, how my daughter can protect herself and how to communicate online.

That might not be right for every family, but for me, it’s more important that I show her that I have confidence in her ability to manage her own digital world and that she can trust me not to snoop.

I’ve since hung up my detective hat, even though sometimes I miss the little glimpse into her private world.

Article Author Laura Mullin
Laura Mullin

Read more from Laura here.

Laura Mullin is a published playwright and writer and the Co-Artistic Director of the award-winning company, Expect Theatre. She is also the Co-Host and Producer of PlayME, a podcast that transforms plays into audio dramas now on CBC. She has worked in theatre, film, and television and lives in Toronto with her writer/producer husband and pre-teen daughter. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @expectlaura.

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