Mom’s Guide to Online Espionage
5 mins read

Mom’s Guide to Online Espionage

The Wall Street Journal (which, refreshingly for a biz publication, frequently captures the wacky dynamics of modern motherhood) ran a piece last Wednesday chronicling all the ways kids try to outsmart their moms and get onto Facebook and other social media sites that parents have forbidden.

I read the article in our kitchen via old-school newsprint while my three kids hovered around me immersed in our family’s iPhones, iPads, and Macbooks.

It’s an age-old battle, right?  Parents say no – while kids try to find sneaky alternatives to get what they want.  In our day, maybe the forbidden fruit was a Marlboro cigarette or an extra hour past curfew.  These days, it’s communicating with friends electronically without getting caught.

I find Facebook utterly awesome.  Ditto for ClubPenguin, FashionPlaytes, Instagram and all the rest.  But bullying occurs much too often, many postings are inappropriate for kids, and social media is way too seductive for young kids learning to juggle homework, chores, t-ball practice and 12 hours of sleep a night.  Facebook was created for college students, after all – not eleven year olds.

What’s a concerned mom to do?

Kids are always going to outsmart parents in this arena.  Tweens and teens are aspirational, hormonal and rebellious by nature.  It’s normal for them to scheme for access to the social media tools older kids rely upon to hear about Friday’s party, to schedule sports practices, to coordinate rides to church, and to keep in touch with friends from camp.

Our children are abetted by some of the world’s savviest marketers, who hold annual conferences like Digital Kids Conference and the Digital Family Conference.  Deep-pocketed corporations collude on ways to make online sites so seductive that even six-year-olds know more than we do.  As a result, millions of kids use social media sites – with and without their parents’ permission. How many times have YOU walked by your kid’s computer screen – even in the expert-approved “public family space” — only to watch their fingers furiously flick up a fake screen designed to convince you they are studying astrophysics online?

The first step is to decide what is and is not your business as a responsible parent.  Every parent draws a different line in the sand. Some respect kids’ privacy and the importance of mastering online tools, and refuse to interfere with online usage.  My philosophy tends more towards “I pay for this device and I’m your legal guardian, so I can look at your texts and postings just as I check your pockets and the crawl space under your bed.” The hard rule in our home is no Facebook until 15, and parent-approved access to all other media sites.  So far, so good.

Once you’ve settled the internal debate about how aggressively to intervene and which boundaries to set, three resources become invaluable in researching appropriate social media usage:


Teachers and counselors tend to hear complaints from parents about online bullying, sexting and inappropriate use of cell phones and computers.  If your school doesn’t already offer an educational session or pamphlet guiding parents in kids’ social media, ask them to schedule one.

Other Parents

Parents are grappling with the same issues and often can be good resources for kid-friendly and unfriendly sites, blocking and monitoring programs, and creative solutions to guiding kids online.

Older Kids

Older kids are a secret goldmine.  Just as kids gravitate to older peers, parents can too.  Ask slightly older kids at your school, or cousins and family friends, what sites are most popular, which ones are inappropriate for younger kids, where they’ve seen the most online bullying and reckless behavior.  You will get straight answers, and be able to shock your kids with how much you know!

Like most of parenting’s hard spots, there is an upside to this dilemma.  Technology has the power to surprise us – by building unanticipated bridges between parents and kids.  Case in point:

The same day the Wall Street Journal decried kids outfoxing parents online, the Washington Post’s Tracy Grant wrote in her Momspeak column about “How Technology Brought Me Closer to My Kids.”  The headline caught my eye, since my kids and I do so much together online:  We play LogosQuiz, we shop Justice and Forever21, we send family messages via Facebook to our former nanny in Germany. Tracy Grant wrote about her two 16-year-old sons who, thanks to the online music aggregator Pandora, became fans of the 70s music Grant listened to as a teen herself.   This often happens to me too – my oldies station plays my favorite Genesis song from 9th grade, and my own 9th grader knows every word.

What could be more generationally divisive than different musical tastes?  Did YOU and your mother EVER listen to the same rock n roll?  Yet social media has gotten Grant and her sons, as well as millions of other parents and teens, humming Dylan, Queen, Yes, the Police and the Eagles in perfect harmony.

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