How to Distinguish Between Spying vs Monitoring

To many teenagers, spying and monitoring are the same thing. Either way, they feel that their privacy is being violated. The truth is that there is a distinct difference between spying and monitoring. As a parent, it’s important to understand the true goals and techniques of monitoring when compared to spying. Here’s how to tell which one of them you’re actually doing:


Spying is secretive, and is usually conducted without the knowledge of the person being spied on. This is one of the things that most upsets people. We often believe we have a natural right to privacy, and spying is seen as violating our right to protect our personal and private information.

Spying has no respect for boundaries. People who spy are usually interested in finding any information they can, whether or not it’s relevant to the main reason they’re spying in the first place.

Spying is often illegal. For example, an individual cannot legally spy on communications between their spouse and a third party. There are certain limits to this (for example, recording a conversation you are part of is typically legal), but in general, the law tends to frown on spying.

Spying tends to be malicious, with a focus on finding evidence of wrongdoing. Material may be interpreted in that light, regardless of the context in which it was created.

Spying destroys relationships when it’s uncovered because it’s such a violation of trust that most people no longer want to be associated with the spy.


Monitoring is open. It can be done without the knowledge of the person being monitored, and this is occasionally necessary, but in most cases it’s most effective if the person being monitored knows about it.

Monitoring is limited in scope. Most parents who monitor are checking for specific things, and only examine material to be sure it’s not there. Some parents also choose not to monitor specific forms of communication, even when they have the ability to, because of a desire to protect the monitored individual’s privacy.

Monitoring is legal, particularly when a parent or legal guardian is monitoring a child in their household. This comes in on two levels. First, as the owner of the device being monitored (which most parents are), parents have a right to control how it is used. Second, because monitoring is usually done with consent, the court system typically sees no problem with monitoring unless it far exceeds the scope of that consent.

Monitoring is protective, and emphasizes helping the person being monitored. For example, many parents monitor for any sign of sexual predators that may be trying to groom a child into a relationship.

Monitoring helps build relationships by giving people a chance to prove their trustworthiness. When people know they’re being monitored and someone else will see problematic material (like cyberbullying), they’re far less likely to try and hide that content or pretend it isn’t happening. Instead, they often become more willing to talk about it and get the help they need.

At first glance, spying and monitoring look like the same thing. After all, they both involve a person in a position of power watching what someone else is doing. They really are different things, though, and that needs to be taken into account in any discussion about monitoring.