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Is It Okay to Snoop on Your Kids?

Cell Phone Logs/Text Messages What the Experts Say
mother snooping on kids cell phone
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Tom Nick Cocotos

General consensus is that you shouldn't look at cell phone logs and texts unless a child is in serious trouble -- skipping school or doing drugs, for instance. Spying on reasonably well-adjusted kids can undermine healthy development, according to Steve Schlozman, MD, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. "Adolescents need to know you trust them to make good decisions," he says. "Your faith builds their confidence to take age-appropriate risks -- ask someone out on a date, audition for the play, offer a political opinion." Prying can also spur kids to act out. "Kids need to have a separate life their parents don't know all about," adds Dr. Schlozman. "If you don't give them any privacy or independence, they may engage in riskier behaviors." Backed into a corner, many teens will up the stakes.

What Parents Do

While not all mothers and fathers agree that kids' cell phones are fair game, plenty of us check how they're being used. "When I was growing up we had one phone, in the kitchen, and my folks heard everything," points out a mom of three from Solon, Ohio. "I want to know that much about my kids, so I told them I'll be looking at their cell phone logs. I consider it monitoring, not spying." She's less forthcoming about texting. "I'm not sure they realize I can read their texts because they think I'm technologically impaired." She's turned up a lie or two. "My 17-year-old daughter spent the night at a friend's house and they snuck out. I didn't tell her I knew. But the next time she wanted to sleep there, I simply said, 'No, there isn't enough supervision.'"

The Verdict

How you proceed depends upon your parenting philosophy -- do you believe kids have the same right to privacy as you do? And you've got to consider who your daughter or son is hanging out with. "It's still true that the kids who tend to get into trouble are the ones who run with the fast crowd," says Kay Abrams, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Kensington, Maryland. If your kids are trying to grow up too soon, you may want to meddle. In that case, though, still consider telling them you'll be checking and prevent the outrage they'll feel if they discover you've been sneaking peeks. One final consideration: "When you snoop, focus only on looking for danger," says Abrams. "If it seems like normal teenage talk, just stop reading and forget about it."