Tracking teens: where should parents draw the line?

By Cheryl Walker
June 16, 2006

Keeping track of what teenagers are up to without being too intrusive can be a challenge for parents. According to Wake Forest University psychology professor Christy Buchanan, adolescents do best when they feel both "trusted and watched" by parents.

Christy Buchanan

 Christy Buchanan

"Adolescents want to know their parents are looking out for them, but they don't want to feel like every detail of their lives is being monitored," Buchanan said.

Parents can do several things to find out what and how their teens are doing. First, simply ask. In a study Buchanan co-authored in 2004, she found that just by asking, parents had better knowledge of teens' activities. Asking not only helps parents know more, but shows teens parents are interested in their lives, she said.

In general, parents should know where their teenagers are and who they are with, Buchanan said. So, asking a teen to check in by cell phone or calling another parent to verify that a party will be supervised is okay.

But, sometimes parents have to back off so kids do not feel like parents are breathing down their necks, Buchanan said. Sometimes, it can be hard for parents to make the transition from knowing almost everything about their children's experiences in the early years to knowing less as they move into adolescence.

Talking openly with teenagers and even asking "Am I being too intrusive?" or "Am I asking too many questions?" is a good way to check yourself, Buchanan said.

She also suggests parents should network with other adults in the teenager's life such as teachers, coaches and other parents to gain additional insights and information about their teenagers.

Options for monitoring children have become much more sophisticated, but parents should be cautious about high-tech spying.

"The line parents need to find and not cross is communicating mistrust when an adolescent is trustworthy," Buchanan said.

So, a parent probably shouldn't resort to more extreme measures such as GPS tracking or drug-testing unless they have reason to be worried or alarmed, Buchanan said.

When parents do observe sudden changes in behavior, attitudes or performance in school, they should pay attention to the red flags and could consider resorting to such tools. Using them can be a condition for regaining trust, she said.

Sometimes, parents and teens make a joint decision to use cell phones with GPS tracking features or other monitoring devices as safety measures.

"Showing love and concern and giving teenagers choices rather than controlling what they do and knowing every detail of their movements is most important," Buchanan said.