Dear David Coleman: Can I monitor my 12-year-old's phone?

Q I have a daughter who will be 13 in June. She has a smart phone, and like many of her age she is borderline addicted. I’m looking for advice on an app for monitoring her phone. We want something that will limit time, have an automatic shutdown time, and which we can use to see what apps she’s using. Also, in your opinion, what is an appropriate daily screen time allowance for a nearly teenager?

David replies: There are lots of different apps on the market that can allow parents to monitor their children’s online movements. Most of them, as I understand it, will do everything that you list as desirable.

I’m not expert in the technology, but I am very interested in why families use these kinds of apps. I think the biggest thing that drives use of monitoring software is fear. In this instance, it is a useful fear. Parents are wise to be fearful of the internet in terms of the risks it poses to children and teenagers.

The dangers come from all directions, whether it be the tyranny of social media and the pursuit of unattainable perfection, or negative comparison with others, or the potential for sexual predators to use online platforms to get access to, and to groom, our sons and daughters.

But, of course, it isn’t as simple as protecting our children and teenagers from these dangers by refusing them access to the internet, or even by restricting their access. If they never get exposed to the potential dangers, they can never learn the skills to protect themselves when they are older teenagers or young adults.

So, it is important that you are using the monitoring software to help your daughter to learn about the internet, rather than simply thinking that by having the software, you are keeping her safe. Alongside whatever restrictions you place on her, you also need to be having regular open conversations with her to contextualise her online behaviour in terms of your family values, beliefs and expectations.

So, whether that is about only saying things online that you would say directly to someone face-to-face, or about appropriate physical modesty online and in person with others. Or maybe the conversations are about maintaining balance, healthy perspective on the behaviour or commentary of others, or about self-protection and self-respect. Determining the amount of time that is healthy for your daughter to be online, or using digital devices, is ultimately a decision you must make for yourself.

It will partly be determined by what she is doing when she is using her screens. Is she watching random YouTube videos?

Is she spending all her screen time on social networking? Is she researching things for homework?

If she is using her time wisely then you may not have to limit her too much. Even using screens for entertainment is fine as long as it is balanced against other activity and other pursuits.

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