'Am I Wrong To Read My Daughter's WhatsApp Messages?'

A parent of a 13-year-old wonders if she's invading her daughter's privacy – or if this monitoring is a necessity to protect her.
Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman via Getty Images

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With up to 91% of 11-year-olds owning a smartphone, it’s fair to say the tween, and subsequent teen, years can be a real minefield for parents who want to protect their children from the harsher realities of social media and the online world.

While phones can be a great way to connect with others and search for answers – whether to homework problems or health concerns – they can also be a way for bullies to provide non-stop harassment.

It’s pretty normal for parents to be concerned about this. In the hopes of keeping tabs on any bullying activity and inappropriate content, one parent revealed on Mumsnet that she checks her 13-year-old daughter’s phone messages every now and then, and asked if this was invading her privacy. Here’s what she had to say:

“My daughter has just turned 13, she is in year 8 at school and has had a mobile phone since year 6. When she got the phone I told her the deal was that I would read her WhatsApps from time to time.

“My reasons are to protect her/her friends, and to ensure that there isn’t bullying or [any] situations/content that I think are inappropriate at her age. Social media did not exist when I was young, and while I know that it can’t be put back in the box, I think there are inherent dangers... as many people do.

“As I said, I have always been upfront with her that I will sometimes look at her messages, I don’t do it very often, and obviously at some point in the near future (not sure exactly when though!!) I will stop doing it.

“Any thoughts? Am I invading her privacy or is this a necessity to protect our young people?”

*The above post has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Is this an invasion of privacy?

People can’t seem to agree. One commenter on Mumsnet suggested it’s a “gross invasion of privacy” but others believed checking messages is totally fine as long as the child is aware. Some suggested a child will just delete anything they don’t want a parent to see anyway.

Counselling Directory member Jenny Warwick acknowledges that on the one hand, monitoring WhatsApp messages can help ensure the child’s safety because the parent can be aware of her interactions and can identify potential threats or inappropriate content.

The fact the parent has been upfront about monitoring messages is also positive, says the therapist, as it’s keeping the line of communication open and it means her daughter will hopefully feel like she can reach out if she does have any issues.

But there are drawbacks to this approach of checking messages. “Some might argue that monitoring her messages intrudes on her privacy, potentially causing a breach of trust,” says Warwick.

“Over time, she might start to feel resentful and perhaps become more rebellious or sneaky about her use if she feels the monitoring is overly intrusive.”

It can send a message that the world is dangerous

Counselling Directory member Olena Chechel is sympathetic and says it’s a “completely natural response as a parent to try and protect your child from the outside world”.

That said, she warns that checking WhatsApp messages can be a bit like saying: “The world is dangerous, I will protect you because you can’t.”

“This message can be quite disempowering and it does not promote open communication on how to address harm,” says Chechel.

“As your child approaches year 8, they will be dealing with a variety of societal pressures, changing bodies, and a desire to fit in. Ideally, you’d like to have a communication style that encourages being open, vulnerable, and supportive.”

It’s important to give teens a sense of independence

Warwick says at 13, children are finding independence – so it’s important for parents to be mindful of giving them space to make their own (age-appropriate) decisions, and to learn to navigate the online world independently.

“Adolescence is when young people are learning to self-regulate and think for themselves. The best way for them to work this out is to practice it,” she says.

“Monitoring her messages might prevent this and hinder the critical thinking skills she needs for online interactions.”

Things to try instead

Have a conversation about social media and phone use

Therapists suggest the parent might want to ask their daughter: are there any parts of social media and/or your phone use that you find difficult? Have you witnessed disturbing material? Do you know what to do when you witness it?

“In order to foster a healthy self-esteem, which is crucial for this age, children have to feel empowered and like they can do things on their own (with your support if they need),” Chechel says.

“Get your daughter involved in the conversation. How did she feel with you reading their messages? Is there something she found helpful? What does she need from you?”

Set boundaries with screen time

Establishing rules around screen time, device use and online activities is important, too – and Warwick advises setting boundaries for your own usage, too.

“If you work these out with your daughter so she feels involved in the process and you follow them yourself, she’s much more likely to stick with them,” she adds.

Parental control apps are another way to allow parents to set limits on screen time and filter content without reading messages.

Be open about online safely

Schools do play a part in having these conversations, but it’s important for parents to follow this up and continue the conversations at home.

“Let her know the potential risks of social media and how to handle them,” advises Warwick.

“By encouraging open dialogue, you create an environment where your daughter feels comfortable talking about her online experiences and coming to you with any concerns or questions.”

Praise your child when they come to you for help

The therapist also recommends for parents to praise and validate children when they come to them to communicate, and adds it’s a great way to foster self-esteem.

Give yourself some grace

“When you decide to give a child a phone, it comes with a big responsibility,” says Chechel. “It also inevitably signals to you that they are no longer a little child. That is a big transition for you.

“Honour that this is scary for you and can sometimes feel like you don’t know how to navigate this. You can even share this with your daughter as a way to mirror honest and vulnerable conversation.”

Warwick concludes: “It can be tricky to strike a balance between ensuring your daughter’s safety and respecting her privacy as she grows older, but it’s essential. You can promote a healthy relationship with her and equip her with the skills she needs to navigate the digital world responsibly.”

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