Teens' social media feeds can be full of insights as to how they are feeling and where they really are on Friday nights. But does that give parents the license to check them? Experts weigh in.

teenager on cell phone with security cameras looking over her shoulder
Credit: Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (4)

Technology has made it easier than ever to keep tabs on your kids. And more than half of parents say they check their teen's social media accounts. Celebrities aren't immune to the temptation to spy either—baseball analyst Alex Rodriguez admitted he used a fake Instagram account to follow his daughters in August. But should you really be scrolling through your kid's social feeds?

The reality is, your child's activity can provide insights into whether or not they are experiencing issues—and social media use can even be a reason for them. Adolescents ages 12-15 who use social media for more than three hours per day are at a higher risk for mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and aggression, according to a study published by JAMA Psychiatry in September.

Social media activity can also affect future college and job prospects. There's also an ongoing opioid crisis and research shows social media can influence teens to use drugs. And while it's rare for a child to be preyed on online, it happens.

With 45 percent of teens saying they are online "almost constantly," it's normal for any parent to want to protect them. The question becomes: What's the line between guiding and protecting children and invading their privacy?

Is it Ever OK to Spy on Your Teens?

Spying carries a negative connotation, says Gail Saltz, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College and psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. "By definition, you are doing something against the wishes of the person and invading their privacy. What you want to do is monitor your child," she says.

What's the difference between spying and monitoring? Experts say the latter means checking about once per week rather than daily. Lisa Strohman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, adds parents can use an app, follow teenagers on social media, or request passwords. But they should always be transparent with their child and avoid using fake accounts. "You can say, 'I'm happy to lease you this phone that we are providing to you, with the terms of use, we are going to provide monitoring. I'm just going to check to make sure you are safe,'" suggests Dr. Strohman.

There can be lines with what a parent should monitor. Dr. Saltz advises against looking at text messages, which are private conversations. "You can't reserve the right to check on her potential chat with her boyfriend," she says. "To some degree, social media will give you a clue as to what may be going on."

On the other hand, there are also times when a parent can go further than promised. If a teen is exhibiting signs of a serious issue, such as suicidality, parents may want to see previously off-limits digital activity like texts. "If you think your child might take their life or do something really dangerous I say all bets are off," says Dr. Saltz. But always make sure to talk to the child first before taking any other steps, adds Dr. Saltz.

Empower Kids to Use Technology Responsibly

Before teenagers get keys to a car, they need to pass driver's ed and a road test. They don't usually receive the same education before getting a phone or social media access. Yet it's a great idea to teach kids how to stay safe on social media and use it responsibly.

Dr. Strohman has tried to do that as the founder of DCA Kids, a program that provides parents, educators, and children with resources on healthy technology use starting in kindergarten. At that age, it's about introducing technology and the positive aspects of it while reminding children to be safe.

By middle school, Dr. Strohman begins to touch on the concept of a digital footprint, so by high school, she can discuss the impact of social media and college applications. A 2018 survey from Kaplan Test Prep found 25 percent of colleges scan at least some applicants' social media accounts, and 57 percent believe it's "fair game."

But even well-informed children will make mistakes from time to time. If the child knows a parent is looking in, the conversation is easier. "Say, 'I was taking a look, and I saw this,'" says Dr. Saltz. Then explain why their decision wasn't a good idea.

While parental fake accounts are no-nos, what's to stop a child from creating one that their parents cannot access? Put simply, nothing. Like so many aspects of parenting, all you can do is the best you can to provide children with the tools for success.