How to Keep an Eye on Your Children Online

Being careful…






All of those words or phrases have similar meaning, at least in their denotative (dictionary or literal) form. In their connotative (commonly understood) form, they come out very differently. As a parent, it is our responsibility to look out for our children, even if they don’t always like it. And let’s be honest, we didn’t like it much when our parents “spied” on us.

Ask yourself this question: If your child was outside playing, would you look out the window occasionally to check on them? If you answered yes to that question, then you should also be willing to see what they’re doing online.

I’m not suggesting that you watch them 24/7. Just as when they’re offline, the amount of oversight will vary from child to child. It’s not about trusting your child to make the right choices. At least, it’s not just about that. According to the FBI, there are 750,000 predators online at any given moment. This is what concerns me as a parent.

Why is it so important that parents become more involved here? Because, as parent advocate and internet safety expert Sue Scheff reports, 57% of teens say that they know how to hide their online actions from their parents. That’s how many admit to it, so I believe the real number is even higher.

So, how can you keep an eye on what your children are doing online? There are several ways, many of which will be completely unknown to your kids.

1. Friending/Following Them

Many parents probably already do this. They might think that it’s a great way to see what their kids are up to, but it’s actually one of the least effective ways to know what’s happening to them online. The biggest reason why this is the case is because many kids are known to have multiple accounts on social media sites.

Smart kids continue to post to the accounts that their parents know about, while putting their private posts on another account. A zombie phone is one that is no longer on a call/data plan, but can still access the Internet using WiFi, just like any tablet can do. Really clever kids will use a zombie phone for their private accounts and stay signed into the accounts that their parents know about on their “active” phone.

On some apps, people may join groups to talk about shared interests. On some apps, you can’t tell if a person is in any group. On Facebook, they have Public, Closed and Secret groups. Nobody can tell if a person is a member of a secret group unless they are already in the same group. The only way for a parent to know if their child is the member of such a secret group is to either be a member of the group themselves or to be signed into Facebook as them (which will be explained shortly).

2. Seeing What their Friends Do

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Maybe your child is pretty adept at keeping you out of the loop, but maybe their friends aren’t as good at it. Maybe their Instagram account isn’t set to “private”, which blocks most people from seeing what they post. In that case, look at their friend’s accounts and see what they post there. Maybe you’ll see pictures from a party that your child said they hadn’t attended, even though you clearly see them in several pictures!

3. Using Search Engines/Sites

Have you ever entered your own name into a search engine to see what would show? I recommend it. You might be amazed at what you’ll see. Of course, it’s harder to find yourself or your family members if the name is fairly popular. Still, it’s a start.

In addition to the usual search engines, here are a few specific tools that can help you:

  • Advanced Twitter Search – this feature on the popular app is really helpful and easy to use. Here’s the link:
  • Google Alerts are a way to have Google send you email alerts if content which might include your child gets posted in real time. You can get a lot of false positives, though.
  • Google Image Search is a great way to see if images are being posted online. I primarily use this to find catfish (online fakers), but it can also be used to see where images might be posted.

4. Third Party Monitoring Apps

There are many options here to choose from. The features range from being very permissive to being very restrictive. Those that are permissive tend to be more of a monitoring app that lets parents know if a child does something questionable online. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some of the apps lock out certain apps or websites from a device. Of course, these apps only work if the child doesn’t have a zombie phone. With so many options available, they allow parents to find the monitoring app that matches their parenting style.

5. Signing on as Your Kids

While this is the most time-consuming way to know what kids are doing online, it can be the most effective. However, this assumes that the child doesn’t have accounts on sites that their parents don’t know about – either single accounts or multiples on the same site. The same is true for kids who have unknown devices to use.

Those limitations aside, it gives full access to parents who want to see direct messages sent to their kids, what groups they may have joined and more. When I speak with parents, I always ask them what would happen if they asked their child to hand over their phone without notice. I’m always amazed at how many parents say that their kids would never allow that.

In most cases, the parents paid for the phone and probably pay for the monthly service. So while the child uses it, the phone is not their property. When we gave our daughter her first phone, we made sure that she was aware of this. Like many teens, she put a PIN on her phone to avoid people using it without permission. She is required to give us that PIN, as well as any logon credentials for any apps that she uses.

While we almost never use them, I actually did last night. I found out that she had changed the PIN after one of her friends was able to guess her original choice. It was a pretty easy code to guess if someone knew her, so she made it a more random number and harder to guess. We have never had a reason to question her judgment online, but we made it clear to her that as her parents, we reserve the right to access her devices/accounts if we felt the need. I didn’t check any of her emails or accounts, but if we couldn’t get past the PIN, we would not have even had the option to do so if we felt it necessary.


These methods vary in effectiveness and how invasive they are to the child, but the goal is always the same – to keep them safe and out of trouble. Sometimes, it’s protection from others and sometimes, we need to protect others from them. Kids may not like it when their parents “spy” on them, but we’re their parents, not their friends. Our primary responsibility is to protect them from dangers that they may not even know exist.

One of the most important things to remember is that if you do see something happening online that requires you to intervene, avoid doing it online.

We worry about what they might do online because it’s part of their Digital Footprint, otherwise known as their history and reputation. But the truth is, that what parents do online can become part of their Digital Footprint. We may not have liked it when our parents scolded us in front of our friends, but at least it was done and over with. Scold a child online and it will have much longer lasting effects.

About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cybersafety advocate for more than 10 years. It was after his own daughter came across inappropriate content online that he became involved in helping others in the area. He is certified by the US Centers for Disease Control in Bullying Prevention. Joe is the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016. Joe is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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