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Snooping On your Teens

I Snoop On My Kids Because I Can

By Mir Kamin

When I was a teenager—back in the Paleolithic era, natch—there were no cellphones. There was no texting, and so when we wanted to ignore our parents at home and talk to our friends, we did so on the telephone. (Preferably one that had a really long cord so that you could get as far away from other family members as possible. Yeah, no such thing as cordless back then, either. They were dark times.) During school, if you wanted to ignore what was happening in class and talk to your friends without getting into trouble, you wrote notes. Said notes could sometimes be passed during class time, but more often (at least for me) I would be writing a note to someone not in that class, and the exchange would happen in the hallway, between classes.

One of my friends and I swapped a comic, of sorts, back and forth on a regular basis during our years together in high school. She was the Toweled Avenger (named for the towel she occasionally wore as a cape; no, I don’t remember how that started), and I was her faithful sidekick, Tumbleweed (named for my unfortunate hair; this was back before us curly girls knew what to do with our mops). As a couple of relative nobodies at our school, our crude illustrations and plot lines chronicled the various ways in which popular kids and unpopular teachers would end up bowing down to our intellectual prowess and creative methods of revenge for various perceived injustices. I seem to recall that there was also a dog named Killer who lived up to his name on a regular basis. The Toweled Avenger and Tumbleweed favored arson, murder, public shaming, and sometimes, heavy artillery. Their enemies didn’t just end up dead, they suffered in the process.

This was before Columbine, before Sandy Hook, before violent fantasies were assumed to be harbingers of unthinkable actions.

In “real life,” my friend and I were both decent students, “normal” kids who followed most of the rules and probably appeared unremarkable to others. Neither of us would have hurt a fly, and the idea of a rabid dog who could take down a hated teacher on command was an entertaining story, but hardly an action plan. We were just blowing off steam.

We were also, I think, both pretty depressed… not that either of us had the emotional maturity or insight to recognize that, at the time.

I saved all of our notes—organized in 3-ring binders, along with my journals—for years and years. The last time I moved, when I remarried and relocated, I finally let them go. In looking them over before the big toss, I had an odd moment of young me/older me juxtaposition, where I could appreciate the humor we saw in our creations at the time, yes, but I also had a maternal stab of, “Oh, we were so, so unhappy.”

Did our parents know we were unhappy?

I don’t know. Maybe they knew some of it. I wouldn’t say they were oblivious, but I think none of them realized how bad it was. Would seeing those notes have changed anything? I can’t even venture a guess. It was a different time. Both of us turned out okay as adults, so maybe it’s a moot point.

Nowadays, notes like that have gone the way of the dinosaur. Teens text each other, chat on Facebook, etc. Paper is passe! And just as I stuffed those notes into my jeans pockets or in the bottom of my backpack because they were private, my teens want their dealings with their friends to be just theirs, away from prying eyes of us insufferable parents who could never possibly understand them. My older teen, in particular, will often complain bitterly about how her friends don’t have the kinds of rules we do, so-and-so’s parents don’t even know she has Facebook, and so-and-so texts all night, sometimes, and why are we so strict and when does she get privacy?

Prioritizing your snooping activities

It’s not winning me any popularity contests, but that’s not the point; I believe that privacy is an entitlement of maturity, and it’s earned over time. Along with that, I believe that boundaries help shape better choices. So that means we have parental controls on our centrally-located computer. That means cellphones are turned in every night before bed. That means I have passwords to all accounts. That means sometimes I’m going to spot-check the texts on your phone, because I paid for it and technically, it belongs to me. That means that if I’m worried about you, I’m going to check up on you. My teens may see it as snooping. I don’t care. I’m very clear with them about it because it’s never my intention to be sneaky: I have access, and I will use it if I have concerns. If I don’t have concerns, probably I won’t. But I might, you never know. Maybe conduct yourself accordingly, just in case.

You know how it’s often suggested to tell kids “never put anything online that you wouldn’t be okay with your mother reading?” Yeah, well, my kids know there’s a pretty good chance I’ll actually read it.

As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. I don’t invade my kids’ privacy constantly and then harangue them about what I find; that would be a recipe for disaster. If life seems to be going well, the occasional spot-check is all I’ll do. Even if I’m checking more often, I am judicious about what I choose to address. You know what? Sometimes my kids swear or otherwise use language that doesn’t thrill me when talking to their peers. Maybe they’re engaging in petty dramas. Those things aren’t worth a confrontation. But sometimes I find something that suggests unsafe behavior and/or genuine crisis, and that needs to be addressed. Does that mean fury over me “prying” into their lives? Maybe. Again, I’ll take the anger if it means intervening for their wellbeing.

I only get 18 years to get these kids ready to run their own lives. I’m not willing to give them absolute privacy when their frontal lobes aren’t fully formed and they’re still legal minors. If that makes me a snoop? Sorry, I’m not the least bit sorry.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • […] coming clean and I’ve donned my fireproof suit; over at Alpha Mom I’m explaining why I feel justified in snooping on my children. Now I just sit back and wait for someone to explain to me why I’m a terrible person, right? […]

  • Suzie

    October 9, 2013 at 10:47 am

    I don’t disagree with you in the big picture. But what you are doing isn’t *really* snooping.  Snooping doesn’t come with such full disclosure. 

    When my kids first joined Facebook, they knew I had the right to look at their activities.  It was very useful when they were 13. I think it gets trickier with my now-17-year-old.  First of all, she hasn’t done anything to merit me having unfettered access to her personal conversations.  The years that I openly monitored uncovered little to no issues of concern.  Second, she’s less than a year from moving out on her own.  Is her 18th birthday really the magic date (she’ll go to college at least a month before she turns 18)?  When does the [disclosed] monitoring get to stop? 

    But that being said, I snoop.  The girls don’t know I do (I don’t think they know …). But I will spot-check their Facebook chats and their journals (yes, paper journals).  Not all that often, but every now and then, and I come away knowing either (a) that my kids are alright, or (b) that there are issues I need to raise or things I need to keep an eye on. I sort of feel guilty that I do it, and they’d be really, really pissed if they knew.  But I also think it’s a valuable tool and I don’t plan to stop.  

  • Jen

    October 9, 2013 at 10:48 am

    I completely agree with you and I have similar rules. I tell them that before they do something to ask themselves “Would this make my parents proud?”. If the answer is “no” then they shouldn’t do it!!! Oh and we will find out! Lol!

  • Therese

    October 9, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Nothing wrong with a little snooping. When mine were teenagers (they are all in their 20s now), I had a keystroke program on the computer and could read every keystroke they IMed to their friends. I did not use this information for evil–it just kept me abreast of a few things. Till hubby blew it with his big mouth and squealed to one kid something he wrote on their, then said kid squealed to all the other ones. The good old days, kind of glad I’m done with that 🙂

    • Therese

      October 9, 2013 at 10:51 am

      *he wrote on there (I hate grammatical errors…)

  • shawn

    October 9, 2013 at 10:58 am

    As a high school special ed teacher, I commend you! WOW! an uncool parent!! I love it!! I see so much with my students and wow the things their parents do not know, makes me cringe. Keep on Mir. Those kids are worth it. Parents these days want their kids to like them too much and this can lead to their ruin. Great job mom!!

  • Brenda

    October 9, 2013 at 11:07 am

    I vividly recall when I snooped on my sister because she hadn’t cleared the browser history on the family computer. I found out she was breaking a huge family rule, and I blew the whistle. I do regret how I handled it (oh, the drama!), but I really felt it was something my parents needed to know. And really, as much as I desperately wanted my privacy, I do wonder if my parents had really known how things were if I would have been able to get help for my depression in high school rather than in college.

  • Lucinda

    October 9, 2013 at 11:12 am

    I completely agree with your approach.  My children don’t yet have Facebook but they can text on their ipods (passwords must be disclosed to mom or lose your ipod, parental restrictions are in place).  Fortunately most of their texts make no sense right now. However, we already have limitations about where and when you can use any technology in our house and an understanding that privacy is not to be expected at this time. When the world can come right into your bedroom these days and children are putting it all out there, I will absolutely be monitoring and teaching my children what is safe and appropriate.

  • Ladybug Crossing

    October 9, 2013 at 11:51 am

    I too, am a snooper. My oldest is a college junior and has asked me to continue to check up on him. I have a keystroke logger on his computer that updates me every 90 minutes. He has a security clearance he doesn’t want to lose and if he types something or searches something that could be deemed questionable, I let him know. Do I read everything in depth? Heck, no! I skim and delete. 
    It keeps him honest, away from porn, and it certainly keeps his friends off of his computer because his mom will know… 🙂

  • Robin

    October 9, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    I also think a degree of snooping just shows you are concerned with goes on in the child’s life. 

  • Heather

    October 9, 2013 at 12:52 pm


    (I am leaving ALL the profundity to you. You’re welcome.) 

  • Cindy

    October 9, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    I completely agree with you. Snooping is part of today’s good parenting. But wow, lots of fine lines in this minefield, isn’t it?

  • Sheila

    October 9, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    You are not a terrible person. I am on the same page as you, access-wise, and my kids know it. I can read their texts, email, etc. and they have no illusion of privacy, BUT… last year I read my middle daughter’s journal. She was having frenemy problems and I wanted to get inside her head a bit. I knew something was off, but she wasn’t sharing. When I talked to her about the problems I could only have known she was having because I had looked at her journal, she was really upset. Tears, sadness, quiet anger. She never expected anyone else to read what she had written there, and she was dismayed that I had. I’ve taught my other daughters not to snoop in each other’s things, but had not followed the same rule.

    I felt like the worst parent ever, and nothing changed with the frenemy. The only thing I accomplished by reading her private thoughts was earning her mistrust and taking away an outlet she -a talented writer –  had to sort out her thoughts on her own. She does not write in a journal any longer (at least to the best of my knowledge), and destroyed the one she had. She has forgiven me, but I haven’t forgiven myself.

    Now we have an understanding: I can look at all her PUBLIC writing: texts, email, Google +, and Facebook when she’s old enough for that. Anything that she writes in private, however, is hers alone. 

    • Mir Kamin

      October 9, 2013 at 6:08 pm

      I think this is an important distinction, and thank you for sharing your experience even though it’s something you felt bad about.

    • Holly

      October 10, 2013 at 5:41 pm

      Thank you for sharing your experience.  I would want my kids to have somewhere to blow off steam without fear of judgement.  I like your rule.

  • Tenessa Porterfield

    October 9, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    I don’t have any teenagers just yet, but I’ve always been the parent with all the rules about what my kids can or cannot do or watch. I’m not super worried about them when they play outside, but when they choose to play video games or watch anything, I know what it is and it will be what I’ve deemed appropriate. My eldest, who will turn 12 this month, is monitored in his Skype use and that of iMessage. I think kids need to be taught texting and computer etiquette like we were taught phone etiquette. It’s simply not something they intuit from those around them. Kudos to you, Mir, for being THAT parent. We are meant to be their parents and not their best friends at this point in life.

  • Mary K. in Rockport

    October 9, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    I had one teenager on whom it was not necessary to snoop. And I had one who was sneaky, deceptive and worrisome – on her I snooped constantly. I also lied and told her, which she believes to this day, that I would never invade her privacy. At times, I found things that almost made my husband and me faint dead away. When I found something that had to be confronted, things got tricky because then I had to invent a reason for my snooping. My usual excuse – and it was a good and warranted one! – was that she had left food in her backpack/room and it was starting to smell!

  • Becky

    October 9, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    My girl is grown but I did check browser history when she was growing. Found out she was afraid she was pregnant and was able to help her through that. Angry girl, yes, but grateful girl when she realized I might be able to help. I think they need us more in middle and high school than any other time. Inever felt ashamed for being able to help.

  • Lisa

    October 9, 2013 at 11:39 pm

    My daughter is 19. She is very closed off and so I was checking her social media. I found out that she’d recently started getting high in addition to drinking, sometimes both at the same time. To my dismay her father told her how I found out so she’s changed her passwords and he also refuses to back me up on telling her if she chooses to continue using she needs to be adult enough to also find another place to live and a way to pay for it. I also wanted her to do drug tests. Again he wouldn’t back me up. He also told her he did drugs when he was younger and he turned out fine. Frankly I wish I had a co-parent who was willing to step up to the plate because now I have a 19 year participating in risky behaviour and no way to monitor or make it stop. I say kudos to you Mir. More parents need to be parents and stop trying to be bffs.

  • Kristin I

    October 9, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    I’m with you. 100 percent. My daughter was the MyspaceGeneration and it scared the living daylights out of me. I had passwords and did spot checks too. I promised her that I would not say anything or rat anyone else unless I felt there was a danger. Only once did I rat a girl out and the aunt raising her was highly appreciative and devised a way to protect my identity.

    Best story here. We had giant Halloween parties for these junior high kids, My neighbors came out and I introduced two of her guy friends by their MySpace names, Santa On Crack and Dan the Dick Man. The looks on their faces when they realized I was aware of their online lives – priceless.

    But it’s about being a parent. And being a parent means taking care of and maintaining safety for your kids. And snooping is part of that – it’s not that they are entitled to privacy, earned or not. It’s about OUR job and OUR responsibility to ensure their safety. It’s the only option. End of discussion!

  • Erin

    October 10, 2013 at 8:26 am

    I wish my parents had snooped.  I had an eating disorder as a teen that escalated to point of being hospitalized.  I would have felt violated if they had read my journals, but maybe I could have gotten help a lot sooner.  It would have been worth it. You’re a good mom.

  • Brigitte

    October 10, 2013 at 9:55 am

    Yay, Mir, you’re pretty! You’re blazing the way for those of us with younger kids, especially antique moms like myself who are a little slow on the uptake, tech-wise.
    On another note, I remember being just in 2nd grade and “plotting” with a friend to dangle a hated teacher, naked and upsidedown, by her toes into a pit of angry crabs until she was dead. Thank goodness for us that The Man didn’t hear us and take the actions that would be taken today!

  • Rachel

    October 11, 2013 at 3:12 am

    Wow! I don’t think I could ever do that! I’m 20 bout to have my first but I know my mother would just check the history of the house computer but never my phone or my own personal computer cos she trust me and if I ever had a problem with anything I would talk her I told we about ALL the stuff that was happening at school what the kids were doing and how I felt about that and everything. I think that because she trusted me I knew I could trust her. Sure I kept things from her but I told her when my sister had done something worse, ahhaahha!! I think that amount of trust we have is because of her being a single parent and her putting her trust in us( my sister and me).

  • Gail

    October 11, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I have such mixed feelings about this. Spying with full disclosure for social media (what you discuss here) seems reasonable to me, especially for younger teens. It’s great to make sure they aren’t engaging in cyber-bullying or putting themselves out there in a very bad way. However, I can see some parents using access in a different way. We didn’t have facebook for high schoolers back when I was in high school, but I can’t help but feel that my mother would have used it more to try to be my best friend than to make sure I was staying safe. I think she was jealous that my sister and I were so close and she didn’t get to be #3 in our group. I can see her going on facebook starved for information just so she could feel more involved, and that seems kind of creepy to me, especially if your child has given you no reason not to trust them (I’m not sure if I’m explaining this right, but to me it’s crossing over the line of ensuring your kid’s wellbeing to just plain spying on them in a creepy way because you’re mad that your kid is your kid and not your best friend).

    As for spying on things like web browsing history or putting limits on web browsing, I think this is more problematic. On the one hand, it would be good to know if your children has visited sites on how to make bombs or something like that. But there is likely some way for them to search it without you knowing, on a public computer somewhere or a friend’s smartphone or something. If there’s some video or something you’re trying desperately to protect a child from, they’ll find a way to see it. But the biggest issue I see with this is that some kids are desperate for help and information they can find online. Like LGBT kids in strict conservative homes, or kids who might be questioning religion, or even kids searching for safe sex information because they had abstinence-only education. My mother had no clue how to check our browser history, but if she’d been able to, I’d probably have been in serious trouble for searching about doubts about our religion. Bonus really embarrassing story: I was almost seriously punished once because I accidentally left up an article about masturbation tips for women when I was seventeen (call me crazy, but I don’t think masturbation and curiosity about sex is unhealthy for a seventeen-year-old girl–my parents, however, thought any thoughts about sex AT ALL before marriage were immoral), but I managed to convince her it was a pop-up ad or something.

    So, to finish off this novel of a comment, I think telling your kids you’re going to access their accounts and making sure they’re not posting naked pictures of themselves or trying to sell drugs or engaging in cyber-bullying is all great. But as for the rest of it, I think you’re better off just creating an open atmosphere of unconditional love where your children aren’t afraid to talk to you (not that teenagers are known for their willingness to talk to their parents–I’m talking things like not being afraid to tell your parents you’re gay or having doubts about your religion or think you’re showing symptoms of depression).

  • Colleen

    October 14, 2013 at 4:05 am

    Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Seriously, thank you for writing, thank you for sharing, thank you for summarizing what I sometimes need help articulating. Thank you for putting things into perspective. Thank you for being that link I click to find peace, and a bit of comfort when my typical teen has me wanting to poke my eyeballs out with knitting needles. Thank you!

  • Tracey

    October 15, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    YAY for snooping. I’ve been a “snooper” from the moment my son asked if he could have a Facebook account. I helped him set it up and then I promptly told him that if he ever changes the password without my permission, I’ll toss his computer in the trash. He’s 18 now and in college, and still gives me the password Only now, it’s his decision and he points me there to see his recent activities and photo’s from college. My 15 year old daughter hates all things Facebook and describes it as a social sewer and doesn’t have an account but I have her email and reddit passwords and am the administrator of her laptop & cell phone. She knows this and is fine with it. We’ve always had an open dialogue of feelings and thoughts so my teens usually tell me what’s on their minds, good & bad, without having to poke and prod. If more parents were involved intheir kids online activities, there would be less social bullying issues, or so my pollyanna thoughts go.

  • Allie

    June 11, 2015 at 10:13 am

    This is horrible! U should learn trust and also a lot of teens grow up with a lot of issues when treated like that. Wow poor kids

  • Sara

    October 21, 2015 at 7:43 am

    I don’t necessarily think that there’s anything wrong with snooping IF YOU ARE CONCERNED. If you have a trusting relationship with your child/children, why jeopardize it by snooping? Personally, when I was in my teens, I came home to my mom digging through notes from a friend I kept in my nightstand drawer. In reality, I had a really open relationship with my mom, I wasn’t at risk, doing anything wrong, or displaying concerning behavior. When I found her snooping through my things frantically and trying to do it in secret, it RUINED OUR RELATIONSHIP. I’m not getting melodramatic here, but I never felt like I could come to her with anything ever again. I didn’t WANT to confide in her, I would rather have gone to someone (ANYONE) else to talk about even the most trivial things. I was hurt, violated, and frankly shocked that she would do something like that. Moral to the story, if you’re going to snoop, I wouldn’t suggest doing it behind your child’s back (which is not what Mir has done, because they are aware of her access). Let’s have an epiphany moment: YOU’RE TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT THEY’RE DOING BEHIND YOUR BACK BY GOING BEHIND THEIRS. The exact behavior that you are trying to correct is being exhibited through your own sneaky behavior, and it’s not so honorable now, is it? Now, if you have a LEGITIMATE concern about your child’s safety/well-being (drastic behavior changes, other parent’s concerns, their siblings bringing something up), then maybe you have to weigh their health/safety vs your relationship with them. All I’m saying in summary is that if you want their honesty, you should be honest with them in return and let them know what you’re doing and why (TWO-WAY STREET).