Teens are known to roam, but new threats in the digital age can make sneaking out feel riskier than ever to parents. One option is to fight fire with fire: Counter threats born of technology (like meeting up with online connections) with technological solutions. You can put smart home security devices to work monitoring your teen. The same capabilities that keep those who don't belong out -- motion detection, door and window sensing, video streaming -- can keep tabs on those who belong in. You just need to be able to arm and disarm the system and field notifications by smartphone.
Self-monitored home security can stand guard
Traditional home security is professionally monitored. When the alarm is tripped, the notification is fielded by agents at a command center. They contact you, then emergency responders. If you have a professionally monitored system, think twice before arming it against your kids. The costs of a false alarm can be steep, depending on your municipal code.
Self-monitored systems push alerts to your smartphone. It's up to you to respond to or ignore system alerts. You'll need to have a self-monitored home security setup in order to track your teen without accidentally looping in the police.
- Window/Door Sensors: Make sure doors and windows are locked through the night by installing contact sensors. Stick them anywhere that should stay shut, like the home office or the liquor cabinet.
- Motion Sensors: A motion sensor covers more terrain than a window/door sensor and also provides a longer leash. For example, you might not care where your kids are in the house, so long as they aren't heading out into the foyer or garage. Off-limit rooms and points of egress can receive blanket surveillance with a single motion sensor.
- Video Doorbell: A surveillance camera pointed at your teen isn't likely to promote a trusting relationship. But a video doorbell is so much friendlier than a plain camera. It's both a security device and a smart home tool. It captures footage of porch pirates and trespassers but also lets you tell the mail carrier where to stash deliveries. It's no stretch to use one for notifications when your kids get home from school or to see which friends are visiting while you're gone.
Let teens know how you monitor them
Sensors and systems are easily disabled by any family member who knows how they function -- a practical reason to inform your teen of any plans to track their comings and goings. If they don't want to be surveilled, a tech-savvy teen will shrug off surveillance attempts. Frame your use of home security tech to keep an eye on them as a way to endorse their liberty, not take it away. For example, if you get a push notification when they get in at night, they are freed up from the responsibility of letting you know themselves.
Involve your kids in your security plans
Come to an agreement with your teen about when you turn to surveillance. Talk about what aspects of their daily, autonomous life cause you stress -- be it their online behavior, their driving, or staying out late.
If it's their internet life that you're worried about, negotiate browser controls. Comcast, for one, allows you to limit Wi-Fi access at the device level. Maybe getting to check your GPS when they arrive at their friend's house would give you peace of mind and circumvents the need for them to update you. If it's the out-at-all-hours behavior that has you on edge, let them know that you want to put a motion sensor in the hall, so you know when they get home safe. You could even set a specific keypad code for them to disarm your security system when they get home, giving some power back. When used thoughtfully, surveillance tech can streamline family communications.
Extend the conversation to other parents and teens
If your parenting practices clash with those of your teen's friends, you are more likely to have problems trying to enforce house rules. Your best bet is to collaborate with other parents. Establish shared norms around curfews and internet use so that any extra security you try to build around your teen isn't wildly different from the unlimited freedom of their peers.
Creating a shared community around safety doesn't stop there. Teens are often just looking for someplace to go. Band together with other parents to provide spaces (mother-in-law cottages or dens) that have nearby adults and parental supervision but give the impression of being hands-off hang-outs.
Surveillance can backfire
Most parents and teens acknowledge that technology has radically altered adolescent life. But they are divided on whether that makes it right for parents to counter tech-age threats with tech-age tools. If technology has brought about a more dangerous reality for teens, are technological controls warranted?
Psychologist Lisa Damour cautions of the damage surveillance can do to the parent-child relationship. In fact, "[A]dolescents who believe their parents have invaded their privacy go on to have higher levels of conflict at home." A disgruntled teen will find ways of evading digital babysitting. Worse, they could grow sneakier and more secretive in rebuke.
Veteran social worker Janet Lehman advises against holding the conversation in the heat of the moment. Give yourself time to calm down and prepare for a "problem-solving conversation," Lehman writes. She suggests that bad behavior in kids -- lying, stealing, sneaking out -- is the result of having a "really poor way of solving problems… If you look at lying as a problem-solving issue, and not a moral one, you can help your child develop strategies."
According to media psychologist Pamela B. Rutledge, "Parental controls should be viewed as training wheels until a kid gets his or her balance, not a solution." Your teen won't learn responsibility for either their digital practices or physical wellbeing by being policed. Instead, "the only solution is education."
Many teens support parental controls
Whether and how you use technology to surveil your teen is up to you. The question is complex, bringing in big parenting questions on safety, trust, and privacy. If you believe that monitoring your teen will help keep them safe and you sane, be selective and rational about your chosen approaches. And inform your kid of any and all monitoring actions you take. According to one study, a majority of teens actually support the use of parental controls, showing that most young people get parents' concerns. Whatever you decide, you should open up a conversation with your teen about safety and responsibility.