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Should I snoop on my teenager’s social media and internet use?

The goal is to empower your children to manage their social media use safely

These days the most common conflict between parents and children are screen related and this has increased during the Covid-19 restrictions when screens have become even more dominant in family life. Many parents contact me worried about their children’s social media use and wonder how to police this.

Some use apps to limit their children’s time on screens and to control what sites they can visit. Some regularly check their teenagers’ phones to review social media posts or what YouTube/TikTok videos they are viewing. Some parents are hesitant about ‘snooping’ like this and instead want to adopt a more trusting stance. Most parents wonder how to reach a middle ground between ‘surveillance and control’ and trusting teenagers to make their own decisions.

Here are some guidelines.

Be honest about controls

Whatever the level of ‘surveillance’ you are using, it is important that you are honest about this with your children and to explain this in terms of their protection: “I wouldn’t be a good parent if I wasn’t taking time to check you were using social medial safely.” It is reasonable to agree with a young teenager that you will periodically check their phone or, better still, to review their phone with them weekly and talk about what they are watching together. It is reasonable to ask them to show you how they are using their social media and to ‘convince you’ that they are using it safely. However, checking their phone/social media without informing them can be experienced as a breach of trust (like reading someone’s diary) and should be considered only as a last resort when you are worried about something serious.


Age is big factor

There is a very big difference between a 13-year-old with their first phone and a 16-year-old who has been using social media for several years. Young adolescents need much more supervision that their older counterparts and your approach should be tailored to the age and maturity of your individual child. I usually suggest that parents adopt a gradual step-by-step approach of increasing responsibility. You might start out with knowing passwords and restrictive social media use and then gradually negotiate increased freedom as they demonstrate responsibility. Make sure to talk through safety in advance of giving new freedom: “Before you get your TikTok account, let’s go through all the safety rules first.”

Be aware about the limits of controls

However, be aware of limits of the controls you use. As teenagers get older they can easily subvert their parents’ ‘surveillance’ and can hide what they are using on social media if they know their parents are checking. Controls can give you a false sense of security and they are not a replacement for talking through safety issues. For example, even if you have a complete block on adult material on your child’s phone, it is quite likely that they will come across it on another child’s phone or on a different wifi network.

Be proactive about teaching online safety to your children

In the long term, the goal as a parent is to empower your children to manage their social media use safely and to set their own limits on it. As a result it is best if you take an interest in their online world and proactively talk through safety issues. Rather than being vague about your fears, be prepared to specifically address them with your children.

  • How can you manage your time on social media so it does not become addictive?
  • There is so much porn and sexualised images on the internet, which do not portray real relationships. How can you manage this?
  • What would you do if someone made nasty comments on social media?

Respond well if you discover inappropriate material

Don’t overreact or be over-judgmental if you discover inappropriate material on your teenager’s phone as this can close down communication and make them hide things from you the next time. Better to keep communication open and use it as an opportunity for learning.

  • I was going through your phone and I saw some porn on it. Can we discuss it?
  • I was worried about some of the nasty comments on the TikTok videos you were watching. What do you think of them?

The key is to listen carefully and empower your teenager to critically analyse what they are viewing. If you think they can’t limit or handle their use, then as a parent you do have the option of reimposing limits – “Look I think your social media use is getting out of hand, I think we need to limit it to a couple of hours a day.”

Some parents negotiate family rules around screens that are useful for everyone such as keeping phone use out of the bedroom at night (to ensure a good night’s sleep) or banning them a mealtimes ( to ensure time for chatting, etc).

For more information on internet and social media safety please see the excellent, which provides a comprehensive set of free resources.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker, founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD school of psychology. See