I created a fake social media account to spy on my child

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Jennifer* was shocked when she learned her 15-year-old daughter Madeleine* was bullying her classmates online. But the problem was, she'd found out by creating a fake Instagram profile and befriending her daughter on social media to find out what was going on.

"I'm not proud of myself and I already know this is going to make me sound like a crazy helicopter parent, but I created a fake social media account so I could spy on Madeleine online," she says.

Like searching her room or reading her diary (if she had one), going to such lengths – and betraying her trust – is something Jennifer never expected to resort to. 

"But over several months earlier in the year, I could feel her getting more and more distant," she says. "She always had her face in her phone, but with her dad and me she was aloof, resentful and often rude."

"What had happened to my happy, affectionate little girl? One night, after she stayed out two hours past her curfew, and I was worried sick, I resorted to creating a fake social media account so I could try to figure out what on earth was going on with her. 

"I made myself a teenage girl and downloaded a bunch of pictures of a random girl I found on Instagram. Then I started following my daughter and commenting on her pictures, eventually 'sliding into her DMs'."

What Jennifer finally figured out was that Madeleine was bullying girls from her school online, even creating her own fake accounts of her schoolmates so she could harass them and their friends.

Jennifer had no idea how to handle the situation without outing herself, so she did nothing.

'I never told her' 

"I feel awful about it," she says. "But I had no idea how to handle it and I realised I was out of my depth."

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"I never told her I knew what she was doing, so the best thing I could think of was to have lots of conversations with her about empathy and compassion, and the importance of treating people the way we'd like to be treated ourselves.

"I'm utterly ashamed of the way I handled the whole thing and I regret it from start to finish."

It's not uncommon for worried parents to spy on their kids, says Dan Auerbach, Relationship Counsellor with Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors, especially now that they all spend so much time on their devices. 

"Many parents I speak to feel quite lost as to how to manage the rapid entry of technology in their children's lives," he says. "They seem to be struggling with how to set appropriate boundaries and also how to retain some control or oversight." 

"A lot of parents don't want to say no to their kids when it comes to social media access fearing their kids will miss out on social connection. Instead some try to regain control by secretly checking their social media."

This kind of control comes at a cost, though, and Auerbach says parents need to think about the repurcussions.

"I think it's tricky because we want to give our kids a sense that our boundaries are really clear and predictable and we also want our kids to know they can trust us," he says. 

"So, if we come across something really disturbing we want a right to intervene. It's not ideal to have access to knowledge that you are going to find it hard to act on without breaching your child's trust."

Auerbach says if you do come across some information about your child that you obtained by snooping online, it's best to be honest.

"I think it's probably important to come clean about what you have come across and to address it directly," he says. 

"Depending on the child's age it's also reasonable to either restrict or deny social media access or to make it conditional on having some oversight."

Be up-front and transparent 

Rather than getting ourselves into this mess though, Auerbach suggests we take an up-front approach instead if you're concerned about your child on- or offline. 

"I think it's better to be transparent and tell our kids that we reserve the right to check in on their social media use, or to disallow it until you feel they have the maturity to use it responsibly," he says.

"Very occasionally there are exceptions where a child may be at serious risk and you will want to find out what is going on in their life, but setting up a fake account seems to me to breach the essential trust you are trying to build. 

"I think if you cannot trust them with [social media] it's better to negotiate some oversight or to disallow it until you have the confidence that your child and you can have an open conversation about staying safe online and behaving appropriately to others." 

But if you're feeling the need to spy on your kids online, Auerbach says it's an indication you should be asking yourself some questions.

"If you feel the need to spy on your kids, it may be a good time to ask yourself what it is that's causing your worry," she says. 

"Have you given them access to tools you don't think they are ready for? Or is it time to think about the skills your kids need to manage those situations and tools, and start having conversations about those skills and see how prepared they are to use social media."

* Names have been changed to protect identity