How to Monitor Your Child’s Online Activity as They Age

By Andrea Nelson
November 30, 2023
Teen using phone on couch

Most experts agree that parents should take an active role in supervising their child’s digital life. But what does that actually look like? And how should it shift as kids get older? 

Tailoring your approach 

To help you craft a plan for supervising your child online, we’ve created guidelines based on three general age groups. Of course, children mature at different rates, and every family is unique. 

The best plan uses these guidelines as a jumping-off point and creates an approach that works for you and your family. Consider writing your plan into a digital device contract

How to monitor your kid’s activity as they grow

The way you supervise your child’s online activity should change as they age, become more independent, and show that they’re able to follow your rules. The level of supervision a 6-year-old needs online is a lot different than that of a teenager.

The littles (ages 6 to 8)

These kids are just starting to use devices. They’re able to handle using a tablet or smartwatch, but still need plenty of guardrails. We recommend the highest level of parental involvement for this age group.

Limited access to apps and websites: Choose websites and apps geared toward younger kids, such as Kinzoo or PBS Kids. Common Sense Media is a great resource to help you vet movies, TV shows, and other media your child might want to watch. 

Parental controls: Use the parental controls available on devices and in apps. For example, Apple Family Sharing enables parents to set rules around their child’s device use, from what they can download to how much time they spend on screens.

Tech check-ins: Talk to your child about the content they’re consuming, and periodically watch it with them. This is a great opportunity to start teaching them about things like respecting limits and how to spot advertisements

Parental monitoring services: A service such as BrightCanary uses AI to monitor your child’s digital activity and alerts you to any red flags, all from your phone. That way, you don’t have to manually review everything your child watches. 

The middles (8 to 12)

These kids have shown they can reliably follow household rules around screen time and are ready for more digital freedom. They can handle access to a wider range of apps and content, but still need regular supervision.

More access to apps and websites: It’s not advisable to give your child free reign online yet, but you can involve them more in decisions. They’re likely to hear about different apps and games from friends, and they may want to start exploring topics of interest online a bit. Establishing an expectation of open communication and using the other suggestions on this list will give them measured independence in a structured, safe way.

Parental controls: Parental controls are still a good idea, but you can consider loosening up a bit. For example, you might allow your child to use chat features inside games, but limit those conversations to friends they know in real life

Tech check-ins: This age also benefits from regular check-ins, including periodically looking at content with them. Conversations can progress to topics like staying safe from online predators.  

Parental monitoring services. A monitoring service is also a benefit at this age. Make sure you’re being transparent with your kids about why and how you’ll use it.

The big kids (12+)

If your child handled the freedoms of the middle years well and wants to forge their independence, it’s appropriate to allow more digital freedom. 

At this age, many kids start using social media and get a smartphone for the first time. Staying involved as they learn the ropes, while allowing them more autonomy, establishes the foundation for a lifetime of good digital habits. 

Independence (with guidelines): Micromanaging your tween or young teen online is not only likely to be met with resistance—it’s apt to backfire and cause them to go behind your back. Instead of strict limits and requiring them to okay every digital choice with you, explain the online behavior you expect, let them know what types of content are off-limits (and why), and be clear they can come to you for guidance. 

Tech check-ins: Check-ins shouldn’t stop at this age, but it’s appropriate to shift to more of a partnership. Rather than imposing a list of rules, talk to your child about how to make their own decisions using a values lens and enlist their suggestions for reasonable guidelines. Continued conversations on safety are increasingly important as your child gains independence, including talking to them about cyberbullying.

Monitoring services. Using a monitoring service as you give your child more independence might seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually the perfect compliment to this phase. Because a service like BrightCanary scans your child’s online activity, you won’t need to be as involved day-to-day. Periodically looking at their social media feeds together is still a good idea, but knowing that you’ll be alerted to problems allows you to take a step back and give them more autonomy. 

The takeaway

Parents should take an active role to monitor their child’s online activity, but that involvement should shift as children age and mature. Supervising your child’s internet use isn’t just a matter of installing a parental monitoring app — it’s a multi-layered approach that involves regular check-ins, looking at material together, and having plenty of conversations together. 

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