How to Track Your Teen on Social Media (Ethically)

We all worry about the amount of time our kids spend on social media, how much of their energy it consumes, and how it effects our their behavior and emotions. Typically, a parent’s go-to is to fear the worst. When fear gets in the way, we go into control mode. We are constantly chasing the answer to, How much is too much? When and how do I put a stop to this madness?

When your kids reach the teen years, you have much less say over how they spend their time, and you worry and fear more than ever. Yet at the same time, having a connected relationship with your teen is paramount.

Andy Earle (, a researcher into teen life, has written this piece for me on how to stay aware and in charge of your teen’s social media time while maintaining trust and that all-important connected relationship.

How to Track Your Teen on Social Media (Ethically)

Losing track of what your teen is into online? Here are three ways to (ethically) track what your teen is doing. Parents today need to get more sophisticated on social media because teens are getting very savvy. We have to go beyond basic tools like SafeSearch and iPhone parental controls.

What makes the approaches on this list “ethical” is trust. Parents should not do things behind a teen’s back because that damages trust. It’s always best to be upfront about what you’re doing. Of course, that means you need to be incredibly sophisticated yourself. These three tools will get you started.

1. Ask Permission to See Your Teen’s Accounts

You need to realize that if you demand full access to your teen’s accounts, they can easily make a secondary account where they post things they don’t want you to see. These “fake” accounts are so common teens have coined special terms such as “finsta,” which combines the word ‘fake’ with ‘Instagram.’

Teenagers crave privacy and safe spaces to experiment with self-expression. When their privacy is compromised, teens will go to extra lengths to avoid a feeling of surveillance. Because of this, I recommend you let your teens keep their passwords to themselves. If you really need to see inside of your teen’s account, ask your teen to show you. This way it won’t feel like you’re doing anything sneaky.

How to Do It? Say This…

Tell your teenager that you are worried about something specific on their social media account. For instance, self-harm, inappropriate memes, or bullying. Say you’d like to look at their social media account and you’re only going to be looking for this one specific thing. You won’t open anything not related to memes (or whatever it is). Say, “This is NOT about invading your privacy. This is about keeping you safe and doing my job as a parent. I want to do it together with you so everything is fair and out in the open.”

2. Have an Honest Discussion About Secret Accounts

Tell your teen you know about fake accounts, but don’t demand to see theirs. Instead, engage in a discussion about why they are trying to hide certain content. Ask your teen if it’s a good idea to post information that would make them uncomfortable if it ended up in the wrong hands. Anything that needs to be kept secret probably isn’t the best thing to post on the Internet. Remind your teen that they should be proud of who they are both online and off.

On the other hand, sometimes a teen will make a harmless second account to follow a set of interests they want to keep separate from their personal feed. If you have an honest discussion about hidden accounts with your teen, then you can spend less time worrying and more time teaching them how to make good decisions.

How to Do It? Say This…

Say, “I know kids are making fake social media accounts. I don’t want to interrogate you about whether you have fake accounts or not, but I do want to talk about it. Is it really common at your school?” Your teen will surely know some people who have fake accounts or may even admit to it themselves. Stay cool when you hear all of this and don’t let the response worry you. You can ask your teen what they think the pros and cons are of fake accounts without ever getting them to admit to having one. Once you talk about fake accounts a few times in a non-judgmental way, your teen might start to feel comfortable opening up about their own fake accounts. Or they might even delete an account they don’t want to tell you about.

3. Be Present on Social Media

Make accounts and become “friends” with your teen on social media. Also, be sure to follow some of the same groups and accounts as your teen. This way, you will know what kinds of media your teen is exposed to and you can start conversations about how to interpret and respond to certain posts. You can help them learn right from wrong on a specific case-by-case basis.

You can also watch closely for signs of teenage depression, loneliness, and bullying from your teen and their friends. Try following the same friends and pages as your teen so you can point out when someone online is being inappropriate or trying to take advantage of other users.

How to Do It? Say This.

Let your teen know you want to open an Instagram account and you’d like to follow them. Say, “Hey I want to start an Instagram! Can you show me some good accounts to follow and give me some tips on what to post?” Most teens are thrilled when parents treat them like an expert in a subject. Once you ask for your teen’s advice you can safely connect with them on the network. This usually works because it shows you have a genuine interest in Instagram and you aren’t just making an account so you can spy on them. Have a good answer ready for, “Why are you making an Instagram?” Maybe say, “The new guys at work all have them” or “To keep in touch with you and your cousins”.

Final Thoughts

If your teen feels like your main goal on social media is to “police” them, they will resist you. But if they feel like you are there to interact with them, help them, and to be “on their team”, they will be open about their activity. Have a policy in your home that your teen will never get in trouble for showing you something they found online. This way, they will have no incentive to hide things from you or lie to you about their activity.

BONUS: check out my interview with Andy on his Talking to Teens podcast (, about How to Stop Yelling at Kids.

Author Bio

Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of and host of the Talking to Teens podcast ( a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.

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