Do You Know Your Teenager’s Email Password? Is This Normal?

Teenager reacts to his parents monitoring his text messaging

According to a study by Common Sense Media, about three quarters of teenagers own at least one social media account. The study also reported that nearly 66 percent of teenagers send text messages on a daily basis. With their children so plugged in, parents have come to realize the importance of monitoring their children’s digital activity. But when it comes to the degree of online monitoring, what exactly is normal? What are other parents doing to keep a watchful eye on their kids?

To get a better sense of these issues, the Pew Research Center recently conducted a study to understand what parents are doing to actively monitor their teens’ digital lives.

Why Monitor?

The study, which followed 1,060 parent-teen couples, confirmed that the majority of parents do, in fact, take some action to monitor the online activity of their children. The urgency and desire to monitor teens’ digital activities stems from several sources:

  • Addiction: One reason why parents limit internet or technology use is to prevent behavioral addiction.  Clinical psychologist Kaleyvani Geeseeny Sawmy noted in her research that high internet usage is linked to increased risk of obesity (due to prolonged sedentary positions) as well as high feelings of loneliness and increased risk of depression.
  • Inappropriate content and websites: Just a few decades ago, accessing inappropriate content was difficult for teens. However, today’s teens are only a few clicks away from dangerous and/or inappropriate content. Because teens can now access the web on their phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and even watches, parents have a much bigger task of shielding adult content from their children.
  • Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying has become a growing concern, prompting action from schools, law enforcement and lawmakers alike. For example, Colorado passed a bill mandating its schools to teach awareness classes to teens about cyberbullying. Frequent monitoring allows parents to feel like they will have at least some warning of a developing problem.
  • Virus and scams: Young children and teens may inadvertently become victims of credit card scams or phishing sites.

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How Do Parents Monitor?

The Pew Research Center study revealed that while the majority of parents do monitor their child’s digital activities, there is a wide range of how they monitor that activity. There are two common types of digital monitoring:

  • Manual monitoring (such as manually reading through messages or scrolling through browser history)
  • Technology-based tools (such as parental controls, apps, and other software)

The most common way that parents monitor internet activity is simply by reviewing the website history. Some 61 percent of parents say that they check the websites that their children visit, and an equal number check their child’s social media profiles. Despite this, only 39 percent of parents use parental controls or other technology-based tools to block content and restrict internet usage. Among those parents who rely on technology, 16 precent actually track the physical location of their teen.

What is the Norm?

The results of the Pew Research Center indicated that not only are parents concerned about where and how much time is spent online, but that it is considered normal to track kids’ usage and set time limits for digital activities. It is interesting to note, however, that age plays a key role in what methods of monitoring a parent chooses.

  • Parents of younger teens are more likely to manually review their child’s website browsing history.
  • Parents of older teens are more likely to view and check on their child’s social media profiles. This makes sense because older teens are more likely to have one or more social media accounts.
  • Younger parents are more likely to manually monitor their teens’ websites and social media profiles. Nearly 70 percent of the younger parents (under the age of 45) check websites and profiles compared to only 53 percent of parents aged 45 and up.

In addition to merely keeping tabs on social media profiles and checking up on web browsing, it is also normal for parents to engage with their teen on social media. Doing so allows for an even more accurate report of a teens’ digital social interactions. Almost half of all parents surveyed have friended their teen on Facebook and 10 percent of all parents follow them on Twitter.

Do You Know Their Passwords?

While it may be easy to check the web history and see public social media profiles, it’s more difficult to see private messages and videos that your children are sending. Because emails and texts sent on Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Kik are not publicly visible, it is much harder for parents to monitor for cyberbullying or inappropriate behavior without knowledge of these passwords.  The Pew Research Center revealed that half of all parents know the email password for their teen’s email account, and about 35 percent know the password to their social media accounts.

Dr. Kimberly Young, a psychology who treats internet addiction has referred to the web as a “big city with no police.” Technology is a tool that can better society, but it can also create dangerous situations (e.g.. addiction, cyberbullying or sexual harassment). Parents know that escaping a digital life is unavoidable. Through careful and thoughtful monitoring, parents can shield their children from the dangers while allowing them to experience the benefits of technology.

The results of the study by Pew Research Center indicate that as technology continues to be present and advance, there is an overwhelming acceptance and responsibility for parents to monitor their child’s online activities.

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