There are limits to parental snooping
Dear Carolyn • My phone plan allows me to see the texts of my kids, 19, 17 and 14. I monitor their chat occasionally. I don't let them know, and don't plan on intervening unless something gets completely out of control.
Selfishly I like to see chats from the oldest, who is away at school, giving me some assurance he's alive! Thoughts?
Dear Seeing • Plenty of thoughts, but none as important as what your kids would think.
The eldest especially. Wow. The "selfishly" says you know you're crossing a line with him. Stop reading his texts immediately and those of your other children as they hit 18 unless and until you have evidence-based concerns.
Snooping on the youngers also crosses a line, but I don't recommend dropping that habit completely.
While I believe strongly that kids need some private spaces, and that you need to front them a little trust to get them building it on their own, I also think Cyberia has different rules, because it's a mistake to foster an expectation of privacy online.
For that reason, I support the parental snoop but with one important condition. Tell your kids. Warn them you have access and aren't afraid to use it. Provide them with the following context:
You're not interested in checking often; you're not going to say anything about what you see or get involved unless absolutely necessary; and you're not in this to get anyone in trouble. You're doing it solely to get them used to the idea that "online privacy" is an oxymoron. They shouldn't send or post anything they don't want to go public, and so now they get to type/snap/snark with you in mind as their possible audience. "Do I want Mom or Dad to see this?" is an excellent standard for them to tattoo on their minds, at least while the concept of "future employer" remains blissfully abstract.
Fringe benefit: Watch them get off your plan as soon as they can produce the cash.
Carolyn Hax's column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.